Open government?

Some progress, on paper at least

Since President Obama came to the White House in 2009, federal regulatory and science agencies have taken measurable steps—on paper, at least—toward improving their relationships with the press, according to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

On Friday, UCS, a nonprofit advocacy organization, released a report card grading the media policies of 15 agencies and two departments, from the Bureau of Land Management to the US Geological Survey. The group had issued a similar assessment the year before Obama took office, giving fairly low marks across the board, but the latest evaluation found that, “Many agencies’ media policies have shown significant improvement since 2008.”

Even so, not everybody made the honor roll, and the report stressed that practice doesn’t always live up to policy in some offices. Here’s a look at this year’s report card, including grades for social media policies, which weren’t examined five years ago:

Each agency or department’s media policy is graded on a 100-point scale based on 17 criteria, from the availability of the policy, to permission requirements for interviews, to compliance with “anti-gag” statutes (a subset of 10 of the criteria is used to grade the social media policies).

“Notably,” said the report, “a majority of agency policies were enhanced” by the addition of a few key provisions, including a “personal-views exception” for public statements, whistle-blower protections, and dispute-resolution protocols. On the other hand, “most agencies today (as in 2008) continue to lack other important provisions,” such as scientists’ right to access and review, prior to publication, any communications, including press releases, that rely substantially on their work.

Among the most improved agencies this year were the National Science Foundation (NSF), which went from having no policy to an ‘A’; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which went from ‘D’ to ‘A-‘; and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which went from ‘D’ to ‘B’. There was little to no progress elsewhere, however, including at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which went from having no policy to a ‘C’; the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), which went from ‘D’ to ‘C’; and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which maintained its ‘C’ average.

Asked in an interview which offices were setting the bar for transparency and access, Gretchen Goldman, the lead author of the UCS report, pointed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “I think we’d put them at the top,” she said. “They have a really strong policy, and they also have strong leadership. [Former administrator] Jane Lubchenco, before she stepped down last month, put a lot of effort into making these transparency and scientific integrity a priority”

On the opposite end of the spectrum was the Department of Energy (DOE), for which the UCS was unable to locate an official media policy, either online or through a freedom-of-information request. The only things UCS could dig up were “a brief, publicly available statement on scientific integrity and a policy on the management of scientific and technical information obtained through FOIA.”

Worse still, however, is the Department of Transportation, which was so bereft of any communications plan that it didn’t even make the scorecard. “We sent them a FOIA request since they have a lot of scientists and technical experts that inform policymaking, but they acted as if they didn’t even know what we were talking about,” Goldman said. “They were so from having a media policy that even the concept was confusing.”

There’s been progress on the social-media front, too. But Michael Halpern, the scientific integrity program manager at UCS, posted a fascinating description on his blog of the gap between the way agencies use those platforms and the way their scientists use them:

While there are some notable exceptions (the Occupational Health and Safety Administration actually cancelled its Twitter account), many agencies themselves are embracing new ways of communicating. NASA has 3.7 million Twitter followers, and millions watched the Mars Rover landing via Ustream. The U.S. Geological Survey uses Twitter to send earthquake alerts. NASA had a Google+ Hangout with astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The CDC used zombies to highlight the importance of disaster preparedness in a viral novella. NIH allows employees to use social media to recruit medical study participants. Departing State Department tech visionary Alec Ross recently said that State reaches 15 million people daily in 11 languages through its 200 Twitter accounts. This is great stuff.

For individual scientists who work for government agencies, however, it’s an entirely different story.

It’s easy to find academic scientists with significant Twitter followings. Scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson are ambassadors for science and bring significant attention to their home institutions, too.

Yet it’s considerably more difficult to find government scientists who list their agency affiliations and tweet freely. In general, they have been considerably more reticent to wade into the social media world.

In 2008, the UCS graded both “policy” and “practice.” This year it stuck to what was on paper, but still emphasized that the latter doesn’t always live up the former. Its notes on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the EPA, and the FWS explain that despite high grades on their media profiles, interviews with scientists and journalists revealed ongoing concerns about transparency and access.

I’ve heard many of the same complaints, and the UCS report cites a survey of nearly 400 science journalists that CJR and ProPublica conducted in 2011. It found that while reporters think there had been marginal progress during the Obama administration, the president hadn’t lived up the lofty promise he’d made on first day in office about “creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.”

In his inaugural address, Obama had vowed to “restore science to its rightful place” in national debates, and two months into his first term, he directed John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, to make that happen. Holdren ordered federal agencies to develop scientific-integrity policies, issuing a set of guidelines in 2010 that included a provision about allowing federal scientists to “speak to the media and the pubic about scientific and technological matters based on their official work.”

Those directives, as well as a 2009 report by the Chief Information Officers (CIO) Council (an interagency organization) that recommended that all federal agencies develop social-media policies, provided the main impetus for the progress of the last four years.

The process has been slow going, but so far 22 departments and agencies had released either draft or final scientific-integrity policies, according to the UCS. On March 7, a week before its media report card came out, the group released a detailed analysis of those policies (some include provisions about media relations in addition to, or beyond, the media policies described above). As usual, some excelled, while most others were found wanting:

Six agencies submitted policies that actively promote and support a culture of scientific integrity; five submitted policies that also promote and support scientific integrity but need additional work to ensure long-term change at the agencies. Eleven agencies submitted policies that do not make adequate commitments to achieve the preservation and promotion of scientific integrity. The agencies are presented on the following pages in alphabetical order within these three groups.

With Obama still insisting that his is “the most transparent administration in history,” it’s clear that much work remains to be done.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , ,