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By J.B. Wogan July 10, 2012

President called for transparency, but agencies haven't always followed through

As a candidate, Barack Obama said he would push for regulatory agencies to be more transparent. His promise was specific to "significant business" and requiring appointees to make agencies more open to the public.

One of his first actions as president was issuing the Open Government Directive, which called for new transparency plans for all executive departments and agencies. Attorney General Eric Holder also issued guidelines to agencies emphasizing a "default position of openness" in response to public records requests.

In Obama's first month on the job, he reaffirmed his commitment to transparency: "I will also hold myself as President to a new standard of openness. [...] Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

But transparency advocates say his actions haven't always lived up to his talk.

The real work of those agencies, which is rulemaking, remains opaque, said Rena Steinzor, president of Center for Progressive Reform, a government accountability group.

She said a big factor in blocking transparency is the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, or OIRA, "the most important little office that no one ever heard of," Steinzor said. That office receives drafts of rules and regulations and coordinates changes to them before they are published in the Federal Register. Those changes are kept secret, according to a report authored by Steinzor.

A 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, came to similar conclusions, noting that OIRA hadn't adopted seven of eight prior recommendations for making its rulemaking process more transparent.

Steinzor said OIRA has been ignoring a transparency rule that took effect in the Clinton administration in 1993.

Other transparency experts we interviewed were critical of agencies' openness about the core policy discussions that guide rulemaking within agencies and the agencies' responsiveness to requests for public records.

"They have done some things in the spirit of the promise, but I think overall they have failed to live up to that promise," said John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation. "There are lots of televised or streamed online meetings, but the significant business of the agencies where there are debates -- that kind of work is not visible at all."

OMB Watch, another government accountability group, reviewed the administration's efforts to grant public records requests under the Freedom of Information Act after Obama's first year. Although the group noted some positive trends, "most indicators of openness have not even returned to the average for the Bush years, a period known for secrecy."

OMB Watch has applauded planning elements of Obama's transparency policy, such as joining an international effort to establish national transparency plans. (You can read the U.S. action plan here.), the White House website dedicated to tracking economic stimulus spending, is another example of proactive transparency, according to OMB Watch.

"I think one of the strengths of the Obama administration is putting the right policies in place," said Anne Weismann, chief counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "If there has been frustration, it's with the agency implementation of the policy."

In January 2010, Weismann's organization sent a letter to the president, complimenting him on his administration's "presumption of disclosure" and the regular release of White House visitor logs. But the letter criticized instances where agencies did not comply with public records requests.

"That is the general thrust of feeling among the open government community," said Amy Bennett, assistant director of "The rhetoric is important, but it is difficult to translate that into real change."

In response to the president's Open Government Directive, every agency has a new open government webpage, with a plan in place for making agency business more transparent. But the quality and level of detail in the plans vary by agency, Bennett said.

"Some agencies have really taken to the president's initiative. Other agencies are just checking the box on open government," she said.

For examples, Bennett pointed us to NASA's open government webpage as the gold standard, with current and regular blog posts, plus an infographic quantifying the agency's progress on transparency; the Labor Department's page -- which has not undergone its required two-year update -- remains at low end of openness, Bennett said.

Every expert we interviewed and report we found gave the administration high marks on plans and policy, but low marks on turning those plans into reality. So we rate this a Compromise.

Our Sources, Office of the President-Elect, Ethics Agenda, Remarks by the President in Welcoming Senior Staff and Cabinet Secretaries to the White House, Jan. 21, 2009

Center for Progressive Reform, Behind closed doors at the White House: How politics trumps protection of public health, worker safety, and the environment, November 2011

OMB Watch, OIRA looms large over rules, GAO says, May 13, 2009

Government Accountability Office, Federal rulemaking: improvements needed to monitoring and evaluation of rules development as well as to the transparency of OMB regulatory reviews, April 2009

OMB Watch, Assessing progress toward a 21st century right to know, March 2011

OMB Watch, Assessment of Selected Data from the Annual Agency Freedom of Information Act Reports, March 16, 2011

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, letter to President Barack Obama, January 21, 2010, Executive Order 13563: Improving regulation and regulatory review, Jan. 18, 2011

Federal Register, Memorandum for executive departments and agencies, Regulatory compliance, Jan. 18, 2011

The White House, Open Government Directive, Dec. 8, 2009

The National Security Archives, Glass Half Full: The Knight Open Government Survey finds freedom of information change, but many federal agencies lag in fulfilling President Obama's day one openness pledge, March 14, 2011

Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan December 28, 2009

Open Government Initiative encourages agencies to make information public

When President Barack Obama took office in January, one of his first actions was to direct the development of an Open Government Initiative. It took awhile, but the initiative was unveiled in December. It includes directives to federal agencies to make more information available to the public.

The initiative, signed by budget director Peter Orszag, includes four specific directions to federal agencies:

  • publish government information online;
  • improve the quality of government information;
  • create and institutionalize a culture of open government;
  • create and enable policy frameworks for open government.

At the same time the directive was released, the agencies announced 20 new measures to improve the public's access to information, everything from the U.S. Justice Department releasing a database of Freedom of Information Act requests to the Treasury Department releasing Internal Revenue Service data on migration patterns. ( Read all the initiatives here .)

We'll be watching to see if the momentum behind the Open Government Initiative is sustained and if its goals are enforced. We'll also be watching for any prominent lapses when the administration does not conduct regulatory agency business in public. But for now we rate this promise In the Works.

Our Sources

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