White House releases report on government transparency

The White House released a report today detailing efforts the Obama administration has made to government transparency. Watchdogs largely praised administration efforts but said true change could take more time.

According to the 33-page document, “The Obama Administration’s Commitment to Open Government: A Status Report,” officials have increased government openness by, for example, approving more Freedom of Information Act requests; de-classifying some sensitive data; and using technology to make data on government spending, agency statistics and the president’s scheduling more available.

“The administration’s deep commitment to creating a more open government has already begun to reorient the culture of the executive branch towards greater transparency, participation, and collaboration,” the report states.

While groups that promote government openness have applauded steps the Obama administration has made, recent reports from the National Security Archive and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington found that agencies have been slow to improve FOIA processes.

Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, said the White House report accurately describes the measures the Obama administration has made to “start to turn the executive branch around,” but acknowledged that officials face high hurdles in “changing government culture” and implementing new technology.

“I do think that this administration set about to state the default response of government from ‘when it doubt, withhold it’ to ‘when it doubt, release it,’” McDermott said. “I really do think we are beginning to see that change happening.”

The administration is invoking FOIA exemptions less often and has reduced request backlogs by 10 percent, according to the report. Government agencies released nearly 56 percent of FOIA-requested documents without redaction from October 2009 to September 2010, a six percent increase from the the previous year and the first increase seen in a decade.

Government agencies denied about six percent of FOIA requests processed from October 2009 to September 2010, citing one or more exemptions to FOIA. According to the report, the government also has increased FOIA staffing and training and begun hosting roundtables for document requesters.

Sunshine in Government Initiative Coordinator Rick Blum said that journalists may have a hard time believing FOIA procedures are improving because delays persist, but that doesn’t mean there have been no changes.

“FOIA is so complex and has been ignored for so long it’s going to take continued, sustained effort by this administration and the next administration to make a big dent across the board,” said Blum, who heads the non-profit organization.

The report also responds to critiques that government agencies are processing fewer requests by saying that the administration is releasing more documents proactively, and is spending more time making partial disclosures instead of rejecting requests outright.

The administration also has made procedures for classifying information clearer and more standardized, and has created the National Declassification Center to aid in this process. The White House enlisted the help of transparency organizations to devise these changes, McDermott said.

The report also touts the administration’s use of technology, such as the website Data.gov, to make information more available. Data.gov provides statistics on crime, drug safety, the employment market and other topics that government agencies address, but some people have criticized the site for being hard to use as it has mostly raw data. According to the report, this design allows people to synthesize information and tailor it their uses.

The White House has “opened its own windows” by publicizing the president’s schedule and tax returns, the report says. In response to criticism that meetings that occur outside of the White House remain unlisted, the report says the record-keeping system “was created solely for the purposes of ensuring secure access to the White House complex.”

McDermott said that explanation is justified because it is very difficult to schedule meetings within the White House.

“I don’t believe those meetings are held outside the White House to keep them secret,” she said.

Jamie Schuman, Copyright 2011 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

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