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Transparency you can't believe in - four years later

Posted: July 5, 2013 - 12:05am

This year’s graduating seniors entered college just before the Obama administration began. But while these successful graduates are now ready to move on to the next stage in their lives, the administration hasn’t achieved the same kind of progress on one of its signature initiatives: creating open government.

On his first day in office, President Obama committed his administration to creating “unprecedented levels of openness in government.” And even though his record on open government issues has been far from spotless, particularly in areas of national security, his administration has at least pushed for substantive change.

For example, the administration helped launch the Open Government Partnership, a multinational effort encouraging governments to take concrete steps toward making themselves transparent and accountable. And, with input from civil society organizations, it has developed a National Action Plan that includes 26 commitments and is aimed toward achieving 18 goals.

My organization recently evaluated the implementation of that plan and found that although the government largely met its promises, there’s a wide gulf between the administration’s actions and its own open-government goals. To put it in terms in which recent graduates might relate, the Obama administration turned in some great assignments, but its coursework for core classes remains incomplete.

As part of the plan, the U.S. set out to improve Freedom of Information Act efficacy. The public should be able to use the FOIA to obtain timely access to government information. Yet despite the plan and the administration’s much-heralded policy statements on FOIA, the government hasn’t made much improvement over the secretive Bush administration in carrying out the law. Many people must still turn to the courts to obtain access to information that should have been turned over in the first place. The public also must wait in line to get records that should be made routinely available by agencies without a FOIA request.

Increasing transparency in government spending was another goal laid out in the plan. In the wake of the 2008 economic collapse and the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the administration developed a new model for helping the public know where their tax dollars flowed, and for what purpose. We should be translating lessons learned from that experience to a system that allows the public to fully track funding -- from the agency budget justifications to the president’s budget, through the congressional appropriations process, and to the point where the Treasury Department cuts a check. But we’re nowhere near that goal.

We face an enormous backlog of information that should already be declassified. The administration made a commitment in the plan to create the National Declassification Center. But while the center has done good work since its creation, the U.S. won’t be able to move through the backlog of almost 400 million pages of historical records by the deadline set by the president in 2009.

A focus on declassification is also woefully inadequate, and the administration has yet to act on recommendations made to transform classification -- in particular, those made in November 2012 by the Presidential Public Interest Declassification Board.

It’s time for President Obama’s open-government commitment to graduate to the next level. The president can’t fix all of these issues without the help of Congress, but it’s within his executive-branch authority to resolve many.

This fall, the administration will release a new version of its National Action Plan. We encores the president to use this opportunity to be bold and include commitments that will create real, lasting transparency that makes the grade.

• Amy Bennett is assistant director of OpenTheGovernment.org.

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