Assessing Progress Toward a 21st Century Right to Know
On Nov. 12, 2008, the right-to-know community published a set of detailed transparency recommendations for President-elect Barack Obama and Congress. Those recommendations, titled Moving Toward a 21st Century Right-to-Know Agenda, were developed over a two-year period with input from more than 100 groups and individuals. The seventy recommendations urged the new president and the incoming Congress to act quickly on a number of key government openness issues while also encouraging a more systematic, longer-term approach to a variety of other transparency problems that plague the federal government. The recommendations were endorsed by more than 300 organizations and individuals from across the political spectrum. A senior White House official privately called the recommendations a “blueprint for the Obama administration.”
The report organized the majority of the recommendations into three chapters.
- The National Security and Secrecy chapter provided specific recommendations to address the increase in government secrecy that has occurred due to professed national and homeland security concerns.
- The Usability of Government Information chapter focused on recommendations for how interactive technologies can make information more easily accessible and usable, including protecting the integrity of information and using the best formats and tools.
- The Creating a Government Environment for Transparency chapter addressed recommendations for creating incentives for openness and shifting government policies and mechanisms to encourage transparency.
An additional chapter laid out recommendations for the first 100 days of the administration; the implementation of those recommendations was assessed in an earlier OMB Watch report.
This report seeks to assess progress on each recommendation near the midpoint of the president’s term as part of Sunshine Week 2011. The many factors at play in each recommendation – vision, leadership, policy, implementation, etc. – make it difficult, if not impossible, to assign simple grades. Instead, we will explain the activities of the administration and Congress on the issues addressed in the recommendations and offer some insights on those actions.
It should be noted that no administration could be expected to complete all of the recommendations contained in the 2008 report in just two years’ time. There is a very real limit to resources and staff that can be brought to bear on the issue of government openness while still addressing the many other demands on government. Several of the recommendations were explicitly designed as long-term challenges that will take years of work to complete, and of course, the work of implementation is never done.
National Security and Secrecy
- New executive order on classified information reduces over-classification and speeds declassification, but some aspects have not yet been fully implemented
- New executive order on controlled unclassified information improves transparency, predictability, and oversight, but implementation has not yet begun
- New state secrets policy represents minor reform, and administration is continuing to use the privilege broadly to dismiss entire cases
- Only minor steps taken to restore congressional oversight or to limit impact of federal secrecy policies on state and local entities
Usability of Government Information
- Strong utilization of e-government and Web 2.0 technologies, with concerted effort to engage the public
- New scientific integrity policies helpful, though not all agencies have begun implementation
- No high-level effort to improve electronic records management and preservation government-wide
- Despite the establishment of Data.gov, no steps have been taken to improve the use and consistency of metadata
Creating a Government Environment for Transparency
- Strong and consistent leadership on government openness from White House and other high offices that conveys the importance of the issue
- Open Government Directive launched a process that required each agency to work with public to develop openness plans specific to their mission and culture
- Implementation of improved FOIA policies has significantly lagged, and only minor investment in new technologies to improve FOIA processing
- Whistleblower protections have only seen minor improvements, while Congress narrowly failed to pass a major whistleblower protection bill