April 6, 2009

Obama makes limited transparency progress, still has ways to go

As we near the 100 day mark in Obama's tenure, how have his transparency pledges from the campaign held up?

Potential shown, but still a work in progress:

"The administration is showing wonderful potential, but so far it is only potential," said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian-leaning research organization. "Being transparent is politically tough. The habit in D.C. is to hold information as tightly as you can because information is power."

For instance:

  • "Senior administration officials" demand anonymity when speaking to the press

  • Obama's attempt to restrict communication between federal workers and Congress was met with resistance by open government advocates

  • The CIA was not receptive to the idea of releasing interrogation memorandums left over from the Bush administration

  • Congressional inquiry on who benefited from the bailout of AIG was rebuffed by Treasury secretary Geithner and Federal Reserve chairman Bernanke

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), a strong ally of whistleblowers, protested that, "It makes you think the new era of transparency is over before it began" after the Obama administration issued a signing statement that allowed his administration to keep whistleblowers from talking to Congress when their testimony would be against the law or "otherwise confidential".

Still, Obama has his defenders:

Indeed, many advocates give Mr. Obama plaudits for setting a standard that Gary D. Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonpartisan government watchdog group, called a "night and day" difference from the Bush administration.

When he signed the $787 billion economic recovery package, his administration established a Web site, http://www.recovery.gov/, to track the money. Ellen S. Miller, co-founder of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington advocacy group, called the site "an amazing potential model of how information is made available to the public."

Mr. Bass would go on to say that it would take "at least a year to determine how well Mr. Obama was living up to his transparency pledge." Ms. Miller graded the President's transparency push "about a C". Notably, "in terms of the three things which the president has said he is most interested in — transparency, collaboration and engagement, they’re just not there yet."

It's true that the culture in Washington is not going to change overnight and it will take time for any efforts to make a difference. Yet one must also recognize that Obama has not always lived up to his campaign rhetoric, a disappointing fact, but a fact all the same.