What Obama’s done: On his first full day in office, President Obama signed a memorandum charging the nation’s Chief Technology Officer—a newly created position—with returning, within four months, a set of recommendations for what the administration termed the Open Government Directive, a document outlining ways for the government to operate with greater “transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” Obama’s nominee for the CTO position went unconfirmed until May 21, and at the four-month mark, the administration launched a public comment process, soliciting public input on what should be in the Directive. On December 8, the administration finally hosted a Webcast to mark the release of the Directive, which was met with mostly positive reviews. It remains to be seen if sufficient bureaucratic willpower exists to bring the directive to fruition.
Past coverage from CJR:
Obama WANTS YOU to comment on the Open Government Directive, May 21, 2009.
FOIA after the Open Government Directive, December 8, 2009.
Presidential Memorandum, Transparency and Open Government, January 21, 2009.
Open Government Directive, Office of Management and Budget, December 8, 2009. (pdf)
“Open for Questions” Webcast, December 8, 2009.
Open Government Initiative, White House website.
Open Government Directive Timelines, Sunlight Foundation, December 8, 2009.
Background: A prime goal of the modern-day transparency movement is to get government to release the many kinds of scientific, analytic, enforcement, and regulatory data it routinely collects and develops. Making serious steps to do so is a tall order, and even if everyone inside government agreed that doing so was a good idea, many basic hurdles exist. Disseminating data online isn’t a priority for the agencies, or their budget makers. What little online data and information that is available from any individual component of the government won’t necessarily be in an open standard.
Obama’s actions: On May 21, the administration launched data.gov, a Web site to increase access to government data in open, machine-readable formats. The Open Government Directive calls for agencies to identify and release three high-value data sets by January 22, 2010. Even if those goals are reached, there will be a long way left to go.
White House Visitor Records
Background: The Secret Service maintains a database that records the comings and goings of nearly every visitor to the White House. When those records were requested under the Freedom of Information Act in the Bush administration, the White House responded by claiming the data were actually presidential records, which are treated differently—and are impossible for citizens to obtain during a president’s term.
The new administration initially claimed the same “presidential records” line as their predecessors. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington eventually brought suit against this White House for the records. Months later, they agreed to drop their litigation in response to the administration’s pledge to release the visit data monthly. The administration maintains that these releases are discretionary, meaning that they haven’t conceded that the records are properly accessible under FOIA. The administration has also said it will not release records relating to personal visits, nor information describing “particularly sensitive” meetings, nor visits that could endanger national security. The administration is also declining to release comprehensive visit data from the first seven months of the administration.
Past CJR coverage:
Background: While forty-nine states have some version of the privilege, there is no federal statute or national case law that allows journalists to decline to testify about information they may have obtained in the course of their reporting. Even though past attempts have drawn support from both sides of the aisle, the Bush administration was a steadfast opponent of creating a reporters’ privilege.