Obama and Transparency: What Happens Next?

When President Barack Obama took office a little over a year ago, he put transparency in government front and center on his agenda. On his first full day on the job, he issued a memo directing executive branch agencies to come up with concrete plans to make government more transparent, participatory and collaborative. How well has he lived up to his promises? Though it is still too soon to assign him a grade on overall performance, we have undoubtedly witnessed some of the most substantive efforts to open the White House to the public than we have in decades, if ever. That said, while we applaud the strides taken during President Obama's first year in office, what we've seen so far can mostly be categorized as laying the groundwork for transparency, rather than tangibly making the executive branch transparent to the public.

In 2010, the president needs to translate his intention of an open government into bold action that makes transparency something Americans can use to hold government accountable, and that codifies memos and directives into law.

Among Obama's most laudable transparency achievements thus far, is that he has undeniably opened the blinds on some government practices that had long blocked the sun. He reversed a Bush-era directive to make government officials cautious about releasing information under the Freedom of Information Act, and radically shifted the approach to FOIA by declaring that the presumption should be toward openness. The White House began releasing electronic logs of visitors -- a tremendous change in policy from where we were a year ago. New regulations were implemented, limiting some lobbying and requiring more disclosure of petitioners under the massive bank bailout and stimulus programs; releasing financial disclosure information for top government officials, and attempting to slow the spin of the "revolving door" between private enterprise and government.

Obama also launched major new online clearinghouses that put more government data online than ever before, allowing us to look at how the government is operating and spending taxpayer money in unprecedented ways. One site, Data.gov, provides easy one-stop shopping for the public seeking access to the enormous quantities of diverse information collected by the government - from air quality standards to unemployment rates to government contracting information. This data is already fueling a growing community of Web developers eager take government information and create new ways for the public to relate to it, as well as supply fodder for journalists, bloggers and advocacy groups to scrutinize government actions.

Additionally, the new administration made the Recovery.gov Web site a core part of its stimulus plan, declaring that the public should have access to information about how their dollars are being spent. Although the site has been criticized (including by the Sunlight Foundation) for being riddled with inaccurate data, that should not obscure the fact that Recovery.gov allows us to see government spending first-hand and also the problems that the federal government has in getting data from its various agencies in a comprehensive and uniform manner--while providing an opportunity for anyone to help report on bad data.

Finally, late last year, Obama released the fruits of a year-long brainstorming and public discussion to develop an aggressive transparency plan in the form of an Open Government Directive. The directive shows how Obama's administration is putting forward concrete policies and accountability measures to create a sea change in how the government and public interact, as well as creating a default "open" position for government data and information. Specifically, it establishes hard deadlines for opening up the government further.

For example, by last Friday, January 22, each federal agency was required to make publicly available at Data.gov at least three high-value data sets that have not been available before. By next month, there is to be a central "government dashboard," where viewers can see at a glance how well (or poorly) different agencies are meeting objectives for opening up information to the public. So far, according to analysis by the Sunlight Foundation's Reporting Group, the high value data sets consist, overwhelmingly, of information that's already been released elsewhere. The good news is the data is now being released in new (raw) formats. That in itself can be tremendously useful -- Web interfaces can never be designed to answer all the potential queries a user might have, but access to raw data solves this problem. It gives us everything, without mediation so we can make sense of the data ourselves.

Over the course of the year, there are plans to improve reporting on data quality on federal spending (see, Recovery.gov above), reduce backlogs of FOIA requests and set in motion contests and prizes to help improve and open government. For sure, given the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. the FEC we expect the Administration to vigorously push transparency measures that involve online, real time reporting of the new political expenditures now sanctioned by corporations and labor unions. We will remain vigilant to watch for these efforts and will hold the administration accountable if they lag in fulfilling these promises.

Clearly, President Obama took some strong steps to implement his promises to create more transparency, but again, they are still almost entirely intention and plans.

To give those plans teeth and make them truly effective, they need to be codified mandates that can tangibly result in lasting transparency. It is imperative that the onus remains on the White House to fulfill their big promises, and incumbent upon the media and we as citizens to hold them accountable for doing so. That is the best way to ensure that government truly becomes more open.