Achieving greater transparency in government

{mosads}To ensure that the actions of federal agencies in complying with the Freedom of Information Act match the mandated “presumption in favor of disclosure,” the Justice Department’s litigation strategy must reflect that mandate. We also recommend a deadline for agencies to update Freedom of Information Act regulations, with a focus on making it easier to obtain information. Also, agencies should be pushed to join the multiagency shared service, FOIAonline. FOIA needs to become a vehicle of last resort, not the first, by requiring federal agencies to post information that helps the public better hold them accountable.

The administration has taken steps toward bringing transparency to federal spending. But the Government Accountability and Transparency Board must put new emphasis on transparency. A plan is needed to increase data quality on, and to make it possible for other databases, such as those about tax compliance, to be linked to spending information through a publicly available identifier. New tools need to be developed to allow recipients of federal funds to create electronic reports that can be used to show how those funds flow.
Numerous congressional committees, commissions and advisory groups have identified the problem of government’s predisposition toward secrecy under the guise of national security. Also undermining the legacy of openness is increased reliance on secrecy in judicial matters, including the too-frequent invocation of state secrets. The Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) identified the need for presidential leadership to break through bureaucratic stasis in reforming the United States’ classification system. As a first step in eliminating overuse and misuse of secrecy, we urge the president to set up the PIDB-recommended White House-led Security Classification Steering Committee.

Protections for “whistleblowers” have led to new laws and an executive order. That’s good; whistleblowers make our government more effective and accountable to taxpayers. Now it’s important that intelligence agencies meaningfully implement that order and make it clear to government managers and supervisors that there is a zero-tolerance policy for suppression and retaliation.
An additional directive to criminal justice leaders discouraging overreaching prosecutions and prosecutorial threats also would be appropriate.
I’d be derelict if I failed to express the concerns of many openness advocates regarding trends in the character of signing statements. President Obama denounced them as a member of the U.S. Senate and as presidential candidate. Yet in his recent signing statement on the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013, he appeared to offer the same type of vexing rationalizations he once condemned — he asserted the authority to “supervise, control, and correct employees’ communications with Congress in cases where such communications would … reveal information that is properly privileged or otherwise confidential.” The balance of powers was part of our founders’ purposeful manner of keeping the government responsible to the people. We believe respecting the limits of each branch’s powers and full transparency in the exercise of government are the best tools for openness and accountability.

Public engagement in the administration’s signature openness initiative, the multinational Open Government Partnership, needs to be reinvigorated. Let’s set an example for all countries participating in the partnership by engaging civil society broadly in developing the next U.S. plan and by making it ambitious in its commitments toward true transparency.

I and my colleagues thank President Obama for his efforts to establish an open and accountable government. By recommitting his administration to these efforts and pushing forward a strong open-government agenda, he would make significant strides toward achieving that openness,
McDermott is executive director of, and author of “Who Needs to Know? The State of Public Access to Federal Government Information.”


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