Words Versus Deeds: Obama's National Action Plan for Openness

November 6, 2013

It is all quite confusing. President Obama's administration declares it will open up government with a "National Action Plan." Yet reporters are still not allowed to talk to EPA scientists. A treaty that could repeal U.S. environmental laws is being negotiated in secret. Secret law is being used to justify secretly spying on citizens and reporters. And White House fixers meet in secret with industry lobbyists to undo openly arrived-at regulations to protect public health and safety.

On October 31, 2013, the White House issued a preview of its "Second Open Government National Action Plan," outlining some steps it hopes to take toward more transparent government. Is it a new direction for an administration whose words on openness have often not been matched by deeds — or a misdirection?

The not-yet-issued National Action Plan is part of the U.S. participation in the international "Open Government Partnership." The OGP now involves some 62 nations who say they want reforms aimed at more openness and accountability. Openness is a great thing. But the OGP recently held a "Summit" in London (October 30-November 1, 2013). Did you hear about it? — or were you too busy following the Snowden stories? One possible metric of OGP impact is how very little news media coverage it generated.

There is a yawning gap between what the United States says and what it does. The Obama administration brags to the OGP that it has "completed" 24 of the 26 commitments it made in its first National Action Plan. But by other — perhaps more objective — evaluations, the administration is doing less well. One example is the October 10, 2013, report of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which describes an administration that instills in its employees fear of talking to reporters. Another example is the October 1 report from the group OpenTheGovernment.org, which concludes that the administration's movement toward more openness is very slow.

Another thing: what's the deal with going to the OGP Summit with an "Action Plan" which isn't really an "Action Plan" but only a "preview"? Does the President have problems with commitment? Is OMB still sandbagging it? Are U.S. officials crossing their fingers behind their backs as they say things people want to hear?

One headline that hesitantly appeared following the action pre-plan's revelation brought news that the administration might intend to develop a single online portal for those submitting Freedom of Information Act requests to any or all federal agencies. This is a fine idea — and the WatchDog hopes that the administration actually summons the courage to propose it now that it has taken credit.

Some facts first. The innovative idea of a single federal FOIA portal was actually prototyped and launched back in October 2012 by the National Archives and Records Administration (the "FOIA ombudsman") and the EPA (long a leader among federal agencies by some open-data metrics). Other agencies were enthusiastically invited to join the effort. But there was hardly a White House endorsement. Few agencies joined the project, and many resisted. Today, as the WatchDog tried to access the portal site, a message announced that it was down. (Imagine the outrage if it was a health care exchange.) The record so far suggests the single FOIA portal will have a long climb.

Here's another question: even if the Obama administration wanted to commit the U.S. to more openness, how much could it accomplish without the help of an often-gridlocked Congress?

It may come as good news that today, November 6, 2013, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs approved the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act: S 994), which aims at making it easier to track and compare federal spending data. A similar bill (HR 2061) has been reported out of committee in the House and awaits floor action. But a similar bill failed in the last Congress, and its chances in this one are still murky.

Again, history offers scant grounds for optimism — and efforts to track federal spending via open data do have a history. Actually, there is already a website for tracking federal spending, and it has not been working that well, by many accounts. This may be the case because it is run by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the agency that is supposed to be tracking federal spending, but which is not enthusiastic about public information ... or because Congress has made federal spending accounts irrational.

Congress, in fact, enacted a law back in 2006 (PL 109-282) requiring OMB to mount the spending database, and OMB was slow in implementing it. A nonprofit group, OMB Watch (now the Center for Effective Government) helped OMB along by putting up its own spending database (FedSpending.org, which is still online), showing OMB that it could indeed be done.

On open government, the U.S. still seems to be fumbling its way forward. While the Obama administration has made some advances, some humility and realism seems appropriate. One tacit premise of the international Open Government Partnership seems to be that advanced nations like the U.S. can somehow illuminate the path of openness for nations where democracy is still catching on. But the U.S. penchant for secrecy is increasingly hindering its global leadership, and the best course for an administration bent on openness might be to hoe its own row.