How transparent has President Barack Obama's administration been? While the first term seemed to start with several bold initiatives, members of the transparency community have been disappointed with the apparent lack of initiative since then. Panelists gave the administration mixed reviews at the Dec. 3, 2012 Advisory Committee on Transparency event examining what's happened over the past four years and what in store for the next four.
Participants in the panel discussion, moderated by Daniel Schuman, policy counsel at the Sunlight Foundation and director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency, had a hard time listing the Obama administration's accomplishments without mentioning caveats in the same breath. Anne Weismann, chief counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the administration's efforts may have been well intended but were not always well executed. The decision to release the White House visitor logs, for example, resulted in more transparency about who is trying to influence the executive branch, but also resulted in some staff taking meetings to coffee shops.
Weismann gave the administration credit for working to make some changes at a time when there is a history of secrecy in many federal agencies. She pointed to the Open Government Directive as one way the White House tried to direct agencies to adopt a more open culture. Changing that culture can be very difficult, and it certainly takes time, she noted.
Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition, looked at the progress of the administration from the open data perspective. He said that while there were strides toward publishing more government data, the most useful government data is still not being published - information, for example, used by executive branch agencies to guide their decision making. Another problem is that some of the data that is being published is not in a machine readable format, which makes it difficult for outside groups to analyze and reuse that information. One of the biggest questions about the administration's transparency record, Hollister said, comes in regard to government spending. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, known as the DATA Act, was proposed in 2011 and enjoys bipartisan support, but the White House has actively undermined the spending-disclosure measure.
Josh Gerstein, a White House Reporter at POLITICO, framed the administration's transparency record as a tale of two Obamas. The President seemed to initially be much more supportive of openness, but has since backed away from it. In the current negotiations about the so-called fiscal cliff, for instance, Obama has allowed a series of secret meetings with CEOs, interest groups, and others. After being criticized for similar moves during the heatlhcare reform talks several years ago, Obama had said he realized a need to be more transparent. His actions belie his words.
All of the panelists agreed more needs to be done if Obama wants to improve his transparency record, and his second term will afford him a second chance. The panelists also discussed the need for the transparency initiatives that do exist to be institutionalized lest they be lost.
The video of the event is available on C-Span.
The conversation drew attention in the media, with Washington Post coverage of the discussion highlighting some of the administration's achievements and disappointments.