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Obama and Open Government: Turning Vision Into Reality

01/05/2011 01:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On his first full day in office, President Obama promised an administration premised on transparency, participation, and collaboration. If Obama is successful in transforming government in this way, what does that mean for you?

First, openness breeds accountability. The transparency built into the Recovery Act, for example, helped the public verify that the money was not wasted or fraudulently spent. When we have such accountability, we again have a government we can trust.

Second, openness can empower citizens. When you can go online and find out which companies release pollution into your community or near your kid's school, you can make informed judgments and take action if needed. This type of transparency can shift the balance of power to those who are often on the short end of the stick.

Finally, openness reinvigorates the founding principle of "We, the people." When opportunity exists to participate in government decision making in an open and transparent manner, it strengthens our democracy.

Thus, we all have a stake in government openness. So, at his administration's midpoint, how is Obama doing in his quest to make his the most open and accountable administration ever?

First, the president has developed new policies to reduce secrecy and promote openness. For example, he issued a policy that says, where possible, information should be disclosed. Additionally, rather than continue to fight a lawsuit started during the Bush administration around certain presidential records, Obama settled it and created a searchable website of White House visitor logs -- the first time the White House ever disclosed such information. Just recently, in an unprecedented move, Obama agreed to disclose the aggregate size of the intelligence budget. These and other policies have sent a clear signal that Obama wants government to be more transparent.

Second, Obama has pursued a course that would bring the government's use of information technologies into the 21st century. In doing this, he has forever linked "transparency" and the internet. For example, Obama promised that "... every American will be able to go online and see where and how we're spending every dime" of stimulus money. He delivered by creating Recovery.gov, a website created in a matter of months that contains information about who received stimulus funding and what they are doing with those funds. Obama also created Data.gov, a website to improve access to federal datasets and expand creative use of those data beyond the walls of government. Additionally, the Obama team has encouraged agencies to experiment with social media and mobile applications. While there are many weaknesses in these websites and tools, it is remarkable how quickly Obama has spearheaded the use of new technologies to strengthen openness.

Third, he has mobilized the federal workforce to counter the culture of secrecy. One tool, the Open Government Directive, issued in December 2009, did an outstanding job laying out tasks for agencies to promote openness, with specific deadlines for each task. A key element was how agencies embraced the directive: there is an interagency committee that works on implementation and a strong sense of ownership within the agencies. An interesting result of these efforts has been how much openness has become the new way of thinking within agencies. For example, in the EPA, the theme of openness has worked its way throughout the agency, becoming a top objective of its most recent strategic plan.

To implement this three-part agenda of new policies, technology changes, and cultural reform, Obama has been the first president to assign top-level White House staff to oversee government openness, ethics, and accountability.

However, Obama hasn't made progress on all open government issues. When it comes to the president's use of the state secrets privilege, which removes evidence from judicial review or dismisses whole cases for national security purposes, Obama does not seem to be much different than Bush. Obama has established a more elaborate process that agencies must follow before making the claim, but there is no independent oversight of that process. Moreover, there is no way for a judge to review in private the content of the information for which a state secrets claim is made to assess whether there is truly a national security risk.

Obama deserves top grades for the strategy, the initiative, and the commitment to openness, despite some shortcomings thus far. Turning the ship of state around is a slow, laborious process. The gap between good intentions and policies, on the one hand, and implementation, on the other, can be as wide as the Grand Canyon. Many of us who are advocates for openness are frustrated that implementation is not as swift or as effective as the policy promises. Some of this can be chalked up to our impatience, but other frustrations call for more White House leadership.

To be truly transformational, Obama must get agencies to proactively make timely, accurate information available to the public in searchable and downloadable formats. The key to this affirmative right-to-know model is the disclosure of high-value records that can foster greater accountability and informed decision making. Basic information such as who works for the government and how to reach them must be universally available, along with calendars and correspondence of top-level political appointees. Core documents, such as Inspectors General reports, congressional testimony, and public speeches should be online and searchable, as should information about government spending and performance measures related to that spending. In other words, we need a universal openness floor to guide the next step in meaningful transparency.

While the Obama administration has a way to go before government is perceived as open, it has made great strides in such a short time in office. We expect much more from Obama on this front in the next two years. We remain hopeful that, in the end, Obama will honestly be able to say that his administration has been the most open in history.

Sean Moulton, Director of Federal Information Policy at OMB Watch, and Brian Gumm, Communications Director at OMB Watch, contributed to this post.

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