Patience running thin with White House open government efforts

The White House reaffirmed its commitment to an open and transparent government in President Barack Obama's second term. But government watchdog advocates sa...

The White House Thursday reiterated its commitment to creating an open and transparent government. But expectations from open-government advocates are rising as President Barack Obama enters his second term.

Daniel Metcalfe, the executive director of American University’s Washington College of Law’s Collaboration on Government Secrecy project, said the Obama administration set high expectations for itself by issuing memos on open government in December 2009.

After initial excitement, Metcalfe and others say progress slowed to a crawl, and now disappointment has grown to an alarming stage about what hasn’t been done.

“Things have gotten a bit worse and we are, appropriately at this program, sort of pivoting now,” Metcalfe said during the fourth annual Transparency in the Obama Administration conference in Washington, D.C. “There was a time when the administration folks were saying, ‘Hey, it takes time. We have to turn the battleship around. Wait until next year. Wait until next year. Wait until you see what the statistics are.’ When the statistics come in, the books get cooked and it’s not quite what you think it will be. Now after four years — and, more to the point, with four years yet to come that are at stake now — it’s time to really take a hard look at what’s been happening and not been happening.”

So as the President enters his second term, open government advocates want more focus and more activity from agencies.

FOIA expectations

Metcalfe said one of the areas where they had the highest expectations and saw the most progress was in developing policy and implementing new processes to improve Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

For example, Congress and the White House created the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) in 2009 with a goal to play mediator between agencies and those requesting information and to review government and agency policies and procedures around FOIA.

OGIS, EPA, Commerce and two other agencies also collaborated to build the FOIA online portal, in an effort to make the FOIA process even easier and more transparent. The Justice Department created the FOIA dashboard to let the public know the progress agencies are making in releasing information and reducing the backlog of requests.

Anne Weissmann, chief counsel for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), said the FOIA portal is an exciting concept that could change how the government addresses information requests. She said that culture change, however, must come sooner than later.

“We have to break through that mind-think of agencies thinking, ‘How I handle my agency’s records is my responsibility and there is no reason, what’s the incentive, to hook up with a portal,'” she said. “I think that is especially the case for agencies that have spent money. There are a lot of agencies that have relied on FOIA-Express or bought commercial off-the-shelf products and they’ve invested money. I think it’s going to be a hard sell to say forget about those investments and join our merry bandwagon. I certainly hope they do. I remain very optimistic.”

But Weissmann, Metcalfe and others’ optimism has a short fuse.

More open, more transparency

The administration understands the impatience of the open-government community, but believes information is more readily available than ever before.

Lisa Ellman, the chief counselor for the Open Government Partnership in the White House, pushed back against what she called the negative tenor of the conference.

“Political will is crucial here,” she said. “I’m here today to assure you that the Obama administration is working hard on the issues you care about and we share your passion for open government. Quick fixes are not always readily available for the issues that our open-government movement seeks to address. We view a second term as another moment of opportunity during which we will continue in our march together to chart a new course for open and responsive governance.”

She said the White House in 2013 will update the National Open Government action plan. Initially, the plan listed 26 goals. Now that some of them have been accomplished, the White House will reconceive where they want to go next.

At the agency level, Miriam Nesbit, the director of the Office of Government Information Services, said her office’s role will take on a new path around FOIA dispute-resolution services.

“The dispute resolution of the FOIA, marrying those two processes is really a culture change. It is a change in the way agencies do business,” Nesbit said. “That is what we aim for with our dispute-resolution skills training, which is giving some tools to FOIA professionals to help them assist in resolving disputes, which is now their statutory responsibility. And getting that approach and making it part of the way agencies do business is a long term strategy.”

New FOIA reporting requirements

Several agencies have taken advantage of both OGIS’s dispute-resolution services and their mediation services.

Transportation Department FOIA officer Kathleen Ray said her agency went to OGIS at least three times for help in mediating challenging information requests. Nesbit’s small office of seven people has handled more than 2,000 cases in three years. She said that number will only increase as agencies receive more FOIA requests and work through their backlogs.

Additionally, the Justice Department earlier this week also announced new FOIA reporting requirements for agencies. Justice now wants quarterly instead of annual reports on how many FOIA requests the agency received, how many they processed, the status of their top 10 oldest requests and status of the agency’s backlog.

Ellman said FOIA is one of several areas where agencies are better than they were four years ago.

“There is a clear presumption in favor of openness and transparency particularly with regard to FOIA. We’ve seen concrete improvements in many areas, and one example is proactive disclosures are up across the board,” she said. “Ninety-five agencies reported an increase in proactive disclosures in the last year. Backlogs are down at most agencies. We believe we are making good progress. We know that there’s always more work that can be done.”

At the same time, CREW’s Weissmann said the Office of Management and Budget needs to strongly encourage agencies to use the FOIA online portal instead of showing only tepid support for it.

New job classification for employees

Advocates also said they would like to see OGIS receive more resources, people and funding to address the FOIA challenges.

Ellman also said there have been several changes in the last year alone that are significant. She said the Office of Personnel Management established a new job series Government Information Management (0306) to professionalize the work feds do to administer FOIA and the Privacy Act. She also highlighted Obama’s Managing Government Records Directive released in August.

Ellman said the White House’s We the People portal, which allows anyone to petition the government on any topic, received more than 142,000 petitions that garnered 9.2 million signatures from more than 5.8 million users.

So far, 229 petitions have crossed the 25,000 signature threshold required to get a response from the White House. The White House has responded to 167 of them and the rest are in the works. Earlier this week, the White House increased the signature threshold to 100,000 for petitions.


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