Obama deputy: Transparency a priority, but takes time

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director
03.15.10

WASHINGTON — From the National FOI Day conference today, sponsored by the First Amendment Center, at the Knight Conference Center at the Newseum, some noteworthy moments:

  • 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 accurate.

    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.