The New Transparency as Opaque as the Old

It sounded like an April Fool’s joke: President Obama accepted a “transparency” award behind closed doors. Only as many are learning, it’s easier for a Presidential candidate to promise transparency than it is for the federal government to deliver. (Ditto for Congressional leaders.) As Charles Ornstein and Hagit Limor wrote in the Washington Post this week:

The day after his inauguration, President Obama promised a new era of “openness in government.”

“We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration,” he wrote in one of his first memos to federal agencies. “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

But the reality has not matched the president’s rhetoric. We, presidents of two of the nation’s largest journalism organizations, and many of our thousands of members, have found little openness since Obama took office. If anything, the administration has gone in the opposite direction: imposing restrictions on reporters’ newsgathering that exceed even the constraints put in place by President George W. Bush.

They note that the Obama Administration has led the way in ensuring that more government data is available online, but argue this is not enough to ensure real openness and transparency.

The Obama administration has put reams of data online detailing many aspects of government operations. This information is useful, but it’s merely a matter of the government posting what it wants when it wants, on sites most citizens would never think to visit.

Meanwhile, reporters’ questions often go unanswered. When replies are given, they frequently are more scripted than meaningful. Public employees generally are required to obtain permission to share their expertise, and when interviews are allowed, a media “handler” is listening in to keep control over what is said. And when replies come via e-mail, it’s unclear who has written them.

Their focus is on health policy, but others argue this is a broader problem. It seems that when it comes to government transparency, we’ve had more hope than change.