President Obama was scheduled to receive an award today from transparency advocates marking “his deep commitment to an open and transparent government — of, by, and for the people,” according to organizers of the National Freedom of Information Day Conference, who are giving him the award.
Late this afternoon however, the White House postponed the event due to an undisclosed scheduling conflict.
The prize — whenever it’s awarded — coincides with Sunshine Week, an annual effort by news organizations and transparency advocates to gain better access to government information. Ironically, the event was only open to pool press photographers only — not open to other reporters who cover the White House.
The honor is meant to acknowledge Obama’s Open Government Initiative, an effort meant to improve access to government information by requiring federal agencies to adopt “a presumption in favor” of Freedom of Information requests, publicly releasing White House visitor logs, and posting more government data online. He’s the first president to mount an organized drive to improve access to the federal government’s information and data.
The conference’s organizers are some of the nation’s most high-profile transparency advocates. Gary Bass is the founder and executive director of OMB Watch, Tom Blanton is director of the National Security Archive at the George Washington University, Danielle Brian runs the Project on Government Oversight, Lucy Dalglish is executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Patrice McDermott is director of Open The Government, a coalition of good-government groups.
“There is no question this is the first President in my experience who has personally elevated open government issues to the extent that Obama has,” Brian said in an e-mail. “That does not mean that the job is done, or that we will stop pushing for a lot more.”
Despite the award, several transparency groups — including Blanton’s shop — remained concerned that the open government work isn’t hitting its marks. To wit:
• Grant information and other federal spending data put into new government databases is often incorrect . Agencies are also posting incomplete data, according to a study by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, one of the main sponsors of Sunshine Week. The report was the topic of a House oversight hearing last week.
• Barely half of federal agencies and departments are abiding by Obama’s orders to “adopt a presumption in favor” of granting FOIA requests, according to a study co-authored by Blanton and released this week. Of 90 federal agencies equipped to process FOIA requests, 49 responded to the NSA’s requests for information. Just 13 of the 90 responded last year, but the report’s authors warn it could take Obama's full term before all agencies are complying with orders he issued on his first day in office.
• A similar investigation by the Associated Press found that the Obama administration took action on fewer requests for federal records from citizens, journalists, companies and others last year even as significantly more people asked for information. People requested information 544,360 times last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act from the 35 largest agencies, up nearly 41,000 more than the previous year, according to the AP analysis. But the government responded to nearly 12,400 fewer requests.
House Republicans are planning a similar investigation of the administration’s response to FOIA requests. Administration lawyers have defended the ongoing reforms, arguing that changes are occurring gradually and that many agencies have made significant progress.
Despite the critics, White House press secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday said the administration’s record on transparency had been “exemplary.”
Bass agreed: “I don’t see a problem awarding commitment and simultaneously badgering the administration for better policies and implementation of those policies,” he said in an e-mail. “I remain hopeful that by the time Obama leaves office we can all say his administration was the most open and transparent ever. And if it isn’t I’ll be the first to say it.”
“President Obama is the first president to invite transparency advocates into the Oval Office to talk about open government,” Blanton said in an interview. “This is an award for his commitment to open government and a way to tell him that we need to bring along the agencies to meet his commitment. We know how change happens in government, and the way to do that is to get it at the highest levels. None of us are going to pass up an opportunity to praise the president’s commitment and acknowledge that we have a long way to go.”
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