Obama deputy: Transparency a priority, but takes time
By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director
WASHINGTON — From the National FOI Day conference today, sponsored by the
First Amendment Center, at the Knight Conference Center at the Newseum, some
Norman Eisen, special counsel to President Obama for Ethics and Government
Reform, detailed administration efforts to make federal agencies and departments
more “transparent.” But he said, “It takes time to get an entire government to
decide how we are going to change the culture” toward more openness.
Eisen recited a number of Obama orders and initiatives designed to open
government records to the public. He compared the effort to “turning a
battleship,” and said the need was not just to announce “quick hits” but to
“reset government policy” in the long-term.
In response to evaluations of Obama administration policy that say
information disclosure practice is lagging behind policy, particularly in some
large agencies such as the Treasury Department, Eisen said the focus more
properly should “not be on failing to make the grade,” but rather on agencies
that — while facing some difficulties — are “rising to the challenge.”
Miriam Nisbet, director of OGIS — Office of Government Information Services,
established in 2009 — said she could see definite signs that federal agencies
were becoming more open. But she noted that training, staff size and policy
issues remained hurdles to meeting an Obama open-government directive issued
late last year.
Although her office’s work focuses on making agency responses to Freedom of
Information Act requests more responsive, Nisbet also called on journalists to
help ensure that information kept — and disclosed — by government is
OGIS provides both a mediation service to help resolve disputes between those
requesting information and agencies with the records, she said, and a training
and education effort for staff assigned to responding to FOIA requests.
Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., the conference keynote speaker, drew applause
when he slammed what he termed a “swinging pendulum” of administration policy
over several presidencies regarding disclosure of information. (See Clay's remarks.)
Clay said that, under various presidents, agencies were told that they would
receive White House support for strategies to deny disclosure, while other
administrations championed greater public access to records and files.