Government Transparency Initiatives Rebooted

"The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure."

by / February 12, 2009

"The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure," -- President Obama

Providing better access to government information has been the aim of many initiatives over the years with some considerable measure of success. Today, for example, The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a national institution, federal legislation is available online through the Library of Congress, and most state agencies have Web sites through which news media, interest groups and the public can access data that was formerly available for a fee or was hidden away. But more recently, frustration over government secrecy has led to a clash of competing interests around the issue of disclosure.

Shortly after taking office, however, President Obama reinvigorated the move to government transparency by directing executive branch agency and department heads to administer FOIA with a presumption that openness prevails. "The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure," said Obama in a memorandum, "because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public."

In 1997, Vincente Fox -- then-governor of the Mexican province of Guanajuato and later president of Mexico -- recognized the ability of the Web to open up government to the public, and counter charges of corruption. "We are the only state in Mexico to have the public accounts in an Internet page," he said. "Income and outgo, month by month, every day. This information is dynamic, so all the citizens know what is happening today related to income and outgo."

U.S. governors have been pushing the openness initiative as well, announcing accountability portals, online checkbooks and e-transparency Web sites. And financial transparency has been advocated as the economic stimulus package begins to roll out.

The Center for Democracy & Technology and yesterday announced the launch of Show Us The Data: The Most Wanted Federal Government Documents, a project aimed at identifying government information and encouraging the federal government to put it within easy reach of the public. This project will lead to a report, recommending documents and data that the federal government should make easier to find and use.The goal is to identify the documents and databases the public most wants to be made publicly available in usable formats. The items can be information known or thought to be in the federal government's possession, or information that the federal government should be collecting or generating.

All this openness is refreshing with a few exceptions: Some financial disclosure sites -- such as those in California and New York -- have revealed public employees' names and salary amounts, much to the displeasure of those employees. And some supporters of a recent successful California ballot measure "to define marriage as between a man and a woman" found their names, address and homes listed on a Web map, with  some contributors reporting threats and harassment. The law in California states that contributions over $100 to a ballot measure must be made public, and some activists fear that disclosure and fear of harassment may quash such contributions in future elections.

Wayne Hanson Senior Executive Editor, Center For Digital Government