Obama’s Open Government Initiative: Progress Report

In President Obama’s first term in office, he made a bold promise to “usher in a new era of open government”[i] as he laid out his vision for increased transparency and accountability in the federal government. As part of his open government initiative, he directed federal agencies to make publicly available their daily operations and he crafted new guidelines for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).[ii] The government has made great strides towards pushing through this agenda, but many aspects of his bold promise remain unfulfilled. As Obama begins his final term in office, he needs to establish a second wave of momentum to push for increased governmental transparency.

Initiative:

Obama’s inaugural address in 2009 highlighted the need to do “business in the light of day.”[iii] He issued memos calling for government agencies to be more transparent and for FOIA to be administered with the presumption of openness. Obama’s initiative was further clarified in a White House directive that specified how agencies could fulfill the transparency requirement. He directed each federal agency to devise a public plan on how to increase their transparency, launch an open-government website, and make all data available on the new websites.

With regards to FOIA, Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidelines to limit instances in which agencies could deny requests for government data and called on agencies to more efficiently respond to such requests.[iv] After a FOIA request is received, an agency has 20 working days to respond and must provide a reason for the denial of any request.

Assessment:

Per the Open Government Directive, agencies have largely met their obligations to create open government webpages and to develop plans that embrace transparency, public participation, and cooperation with other agencies.[v] However, there is a great deal of scrutiny regarding the quality of the government information available on the websites.

For instance, USASpending.gov reports on how agencies spend taxpayers’ money. Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation said that the website consists of over “$1.2 trillion worth of misreported spending in 2009 alone.”[vi] The government has compiled and made data easy to find, with simple websites such as Grants.gov for federal grants and Recalls.gov for unsafe products. However, in order for the data to be useful in attempts to hold the government accountable, the data needs to be accurate. There have been numerous instances of discrepancies between website reporting and federal budget documents.[vii]

The Obama Administration launched FOIA.gov, which tracks data regarding agency responses to information requests. According to FOIA.gov, the backlog on requests has decreased from 130,419 in FY 2008 to 83,490 in FY 2011. While the data is now publicly accessible, there are still a significant number of backlogged requests and many inadequately explained denials.[viii]

A National Security Archive audit found that 62 of 99 agencies have not updated FOIA regulations since Holder’s 2009 memorandum.[ix] Moreover, there was a June 2012 Bloomberg study where a reporter requested executive travel information from 57 major federal agencies. Only eight of those agencies responded within the allocated 20-day period.[x]

Reform:

Obama has not addressed the initiative in his inaugural address or in any other public forum since the beginning of his second term. Obama needs to continue to make the open government initiative a priority on his agenda. Below are proposals that would strengthen Obama’s open government initiative and provide a solid foundation for future administrations:

(1)  Re-assert executive support for the Open Government Initiative

(2)  Follow up with agencies that have not complied with Holder’s 2009 memorandum

(3)  Assess progress in the first term and compile a list of “best practices” that agencies should adopt

(4)  Monitor agency FOIA exemptions and reduce agency use of discretionary withholdings[xi]

(5)  Establish a central body that can assess the accuracy of agency data and enforce compliance with FOIA requirements

(6)  Remove financial barriers to requesting information from the government

— Eric Merron is a general member of MJEAL. He can be reached at merron@umich.edu


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

[i] Memorandum, Freedom of Information Act (2009), available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/freedom-information-act

[ii] Id.

[iii] Jennifer LaFleur, Has Obama Kept His Open Government Pledge, Pro Publica, http://www.propublica.org/article/has-obama-kept-his-open-government-pledge

[iv] Department of Justice, Attorney General Issues New FOIA Guidelines, available at http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2009/March/09-ag-253.html

[v] Open Government Directive (2009), available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/open/documents/open-government-directive

[vi] Testimony of Ellen Miller Before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, available at http://sunlightfoundation.com/policy/documents/testimony-ellen-miller-house-oversight/

[vii] Id.

[viii] Jennifer LaFleur, Has Obama Kept His Open Government Pledge, Pro Publica, http://www.propublica.org/article/has-obama-kept-his-open-government-pledge

[ix] Outdated Agency Regs Undermine Freedom of Information, The National Security Archive, http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB405/

[x] Testing Obama’s Promise of Government Transparency, Bloomberg, http://go.bloomberg.com/multimedia/bloomberg-checks-obama-transparency/

[xi] Outdated Agency Regs Undermine Freedom of Information, The National Security Archive, http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB405/