A Transparent Government – Are We There Yet?
With the advent of Sunshine Week it is time, once again, to assess the Obama Administration’s progress in making our government more transparent. Mid-way through its term, the administration claims victory on many fronts, touting its plans to launch a new website to inform the public on how to request information from the government, and the fact that ten of the 14 Cabinet-level agencies have diminished their use of Exemption 5 of the Freedom of Information Act to withhold pre-decisional documents.
On the other hand, a new study by the National Security Archive (the Archive) concluded the administration still has a long way to go, with slightly less than 50 percent of agencies failing to take steps to bring more transparency to government. As the Archive’s Director Tom Blanton pointed out, “At this rate, it’ll be the end of his term before the agencies do what Obama asked them to do on the first day.”
The Associated Press conducted its own study documenting a “decidedly mixed performance.” According to the AP report, government agencies received nearly 41,000 requests this past year, yet acted on almost 12,400 fewer requests. Moreover, agencies refused to release documents in more than one in three cases based on a variety of factors.
Some of the findings of these reports already are drawing fire from administration officials, who claim a need to take many of these statistics “with a grain of salt.” We can expect to hear more dueling voices this week – the administration, no doubt, will articulate some version of “Mission Accomplished” despite the extensive work that remains, while others will point out how little actually has been accomplished given the high priority President Obama gave to transparency from his first full day in office.
CREW can debate statistics with the best of them, and our own experience makes clear transparency under the FOIA still is a very long way away. But all this public debate ignores one of the most critical factors in achieving transparency: preserving government documents in the first place. A recently released report by the National Archives and Records Administration disclosed that the records at 95 percent of agencies face a moderate to high risk of improper destruction.
This is perhaps the most appalling statistic of all and documents what CREW has been complaining about for years: we are losing a valuable piece of our history with each passing day. Electronic records, particularly emails, are most at risk. Proof of their value abounds. With the missing John Yoo emails we may never know the full story behind his role in crafting the now-rejected torture memos. Before the Obama administration implemented a proper electronic record keeping system we lost millions of Bush-era emails from critical time periods, including the decision to go to war with Iraq. More recently, Education’s failure to properly preserve its emails deprived us of critical emails from top officials whose conduct in leading the charge to increase regulation of the for-profit education industry very much is at issue.
Despite this problem of gigantic proportions, the administration is doing nothing on this front, beyond pointing to “the cloud,” a type software providing a vast amount of remote storage, as the answer to our problems. But the cloud will not restore documents that were never preserved in the first place. Yes the answer includes money, something that is in short supply. But proper record keeping will save money in the long time. More importantly, without proper record keeping transparency is only an unobtainable pipedream.