Editor’s Note: Don’t miss Andrew Feinberg’s video interview with Brock Meeks on BroadbandCensus TV.
WASHINGTON, February 17, 2009 – The new administration of President Barack Obama’s has a limited window to fulfill its promise of transparency in government, Center for Democracy & Technology officials said Tuesday.
CDT vice president Ari Schwartz praised the Obama White House for making open government – an issue on which the president made central to his campaign and his image – a theme “from day one.” The administration seems to make “another open government announcement literally every day,” Schwartz said.
While transparency is a “keystone, signature issue” for the new administration, making good on its promises “is going to be an interesting challenge,” said CDT president and CEO Leslie Harris. The toughest aspect of changing the culture of secrecy in Washington is “a bureaucracy created for closure – not openness,” Harris said.
The administration has let 30 days pass on its self-imposed 120 day deadline to for the GSA, OMB and a yet-to-be-named National Chief Technology Officer to create a national directive on open government, Schwartz said. And with the signing of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and in launching the Recovery.gov web site, the Obama administration will face an early test.
Promises don’t make transparency so, said CDT. Together with the Sunlight Foundation, CDT announced the “Show Us The Data” project where users can help create a list of documents that should be online, but aren’t. While in the past CDT has had lists of the “10 most wanted government documents,” Schwartz said this is the first time the group has allowed voting.
The administration has so far been unsuccessful in posting most bills passed by Congress for the self-imposed five-day public viewing period, Schwartz said. While he acknowledged the need for exceptions for “emergency” legislation, he said that firmly defining those exceptions is “extremely important.”
Another area of concern is the continual failure to make available Congressional Research Service reports. While the Wikileaks and OpenCRS project have managed to post many reports online, the CRS still will not make them public on their own initiative. And while concerns over politicization of the reports may have been valid at one time, Harris said that the number of reports publicly available made such worries moot.
“A lot of open government folks have judged the Obama administration based on past administrations,” Harris said. And the first few Executive Orders the President signed went far towards restoring transparency in comparison to the Bush administration, she noted. But the Recovery.gov site and the 120 day threshold will hold the administration to its own rhetoric, she said.
Schwartz said the administration had “a lot of work to do [in the privacy space]” – including work the new Justice Department must face in culling many of the Bush-era directives that restrict privacy or access to information. “They need to get moving,” he said.
Harris said it’s alright to give them a bit more time. But to Harris, time to enact concrete changes means a “matter of months…not a matter of years,” at least for most transparency issues.
Some agencies will take longer to fix, she said. Despite calls from Acting Chairman Michael Copps for more transparency, Harris called the Federal Communications Commission “broken” and “with no consistent process.” The FCC needs to “figure out a regular procedure and stick to it,” she said.
But despite the “signs of disappointment” from some in the Web 2.0 crowd that change isn’t faster in coming, Schwartz called for a little more slack, and urged the public to take another look at the 120-day mark.