February 17, 2009, 2:10 PM — New U.S. President Barack Obama has taken good first steps toward making the U.S. government more open, but his administration's actions in the coming weeks will be critical in determining how transparent it intends to be, one open-government advocacy group said Tuesday.
During his campaign, Obama promised to create a more open and transparent government by posting more information on the Internet, and on his first full day in office, he reversed a policy from former President George Bush when he issued a memo telling federal agencies that they should generally presume government documents are available to the public when they receive Freedom of Information Act requests.
But in his first month in office, Obama has apparently broken a campaign promise to post all nonemergency legislation online before signing it, and the U.S. Department of Justice under Obama has tried to stop trials for Guantanamo Bay detainees by arguing, as the Bush administration did, that the cases would expose state secrets. Open-government groups have given Obama a pass so far, based on the expectation he'll fulfill his promises, but it will soon be time for the Obama administration to deliver, said officials with the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a digital liberties and open-government watchdog group.
"To this point, I think a lot of open-government groups have judged the Obama administration by what has happened in past administrations," said Ari Schwartz, CDT's deputy director. "There's been early leniency about how they go about open-government efforts because there's the feeling that the Bush administration was so bad."
Obama has continued to push for open-government initiatives. "My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government," he said in one of his first memos. "We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government."
Obama's stated goal was to have an open-government directive in place within four months of taking office, Schwartz noted. "There's a lot of work to do in this space," he added.
One important step comes Tuesday, as Obama is scheduled to sign an estimated US$787 billion economic stimulus package. A major test will be how detailed the just-launched Recovery.gov becomes, Schwartz said. The Obama administration has step up Recovery.gov to help the public understand what's in the legislation and track the spending.
Some government policies may need to change to fully implement Obama's goals, CDT officials said. Current guidelines on information sharing by the White House Office of Management and Budget don't focus on open and participatory government, Schwartz said.
Changing the way government treats its information is "going to be an interesting challenge over the course of the next year," added Leslie Harris, CDT's president and CEO.
In addition, the U.S. government has several areas it needs to work on, CDT officials said. Last week, CDT and two other open-government groups launched Showusthedata.org, a Web site highlighting the unavailable government documents the public is most interested in seeing. Users of the site have so far voted that they most want to see Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports, which are documents created by Congress' own in-house think tank but not widely available and reports on how private companies spent federal bailout money.
CDT operates the OpenCRS.com site, which publishes many CRS reports from multiple sources. While lobbyists have often been able to buy CRS reports from various vendors and use their access to influence public policy, members of the public haven't had the same opportunity, Schwartz said.
Users of Showusthedata.org also want to see extensive voting records for members of Congress, reports on the DOJ's use of the antiterrorism legislation the Patriot Act, and the opinions of the DOJ's legal counsel.
Asked if CDT had concerns about Obama apparently breaking his promise to post nonemergency legislation for five days before signing it, Schwartz said the administration needs to post a definition of what constitutes emergency legislation. Obama is due to sign the economic stimulus bill Tuesday, when Congress passed it late Friday. Some people may argue the stimulus bill is an emergency, but some other legislation Obama has signed without posting seemed to be less of an emergency, Schwartz said.
"We shouldn't be having a debate whether [legislation] is an emergency or not," Schwartz said. "We should be having a debate over whether it has been up for five days or not."