Politics

Glowing White House transparency report omits first 8 months, skews story

The White House released a report Friday touting its efforts to increase government transparency during the 2010 Fiscal Year. But conflicting data from the previous year indicate that the Obama administration may not be as “open” as the report suggests.

The report focuses on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the administration’s “Open Government Initiative,” and tech-driven transparency. It begins with a reminder that the Obama administration “has done much to make information about how government works more accessible to the public, and to solicit citizens’ participation in government decision-making.”

All three initiatives have become administration talking points. Obama released a memorandum shortly after his inauguration declaring his intent to make government more open. That statement drew special attention to a promised effort to bolster federal government responses to Freedom of Information Act requests, a commitment that the president described as “the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government,” since FOIA compliance promotes “accountability through transparency.”

The new White House report emphasizes the 6 percent increase in full FOIA disclosures during the last fiscal year, which ran from October 2009 through September 2010. It claims that “the invocation of FOIA exemptions dropped by nearly 54,000 over the past year, more than a 10% reduction.”

But since President Obama was in office for eight months prior to the start of that fiscal year, the report’s conclusions are based on an incomplete picture of his administration’s compliance rate. The 2008–2009 fiscal year, two-thirds of which consisted of months when Obama was in office, shows a dramatically different picture.

The Huffington Post reports that federal government agencies cited “exemptions at least 466,872 times in budget year 2009, compared with 312,683 times the previous year.” It is unclear how much of that dramatic increase was related to months when President George W. Bush was still in office.

HuffPo did report, however, that “major agencies cited the exemption at least 70,779 times during the 2009 budget year, up from 47,395 times during President George W. Bush’s final full budget year.”

An Associated Press report that formed the basis for HuffPo’s reporting noted that the 2009  fiscal year also saw an increase in the use of “deliberative process” exemptions, which allow government agencies to shield their decision-making methods from public view.

Interestingly, the White House report highlights the “deliberative process” exemption as an area in which the administration has made substantial gains, claiming that reliance on this specific “exemption” during the 2010 Fiscal year “dropped by 19%.”

The report released Friday makes brief mention of the White House’s efforts to increase transparency by publishing visitor logs. Findings from the Center for Public Integrity, however, challenge this conclusion. The non-profit watchdog group found in an April 2011 review of those logs that they are “incomplete for thousands of other visitors to the White House, including lobbyists, government employees, campaign donors, policy experts, and friends of the first family.”

New online government initiatives such as data.gov and FOIA.gov have simplified public access to previously hidden information. While these websites may be difficult for some to use, data.gov alone has already served 200 million page views since its launch. And the non-profit Sunlight Foundation sees initiatives like these as a step in the right direction.

The foundation noted in April that “Data.gov may be imperfect, but it has already and convincingly earned a spot as a big part of the future of American open government.”

Making information publicly accessible, however, doesn’t always translate into genuine transparency. The left-leaning watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government (CREW) believes there is still a significant disconnect between White House rhetoric and actual agency behavior.

CREW sent a questionnaire to administration officials who deal with FOIA processing, and measured how important they thought transparency was in general. The results, CREW says, show that “while the vast majority of respondents are aware of Attorney General Holder’s FOIA guidelines, the majority reported no change at their agencies as a result of those guidelines.”

The Sunlight Foundation and CREW did not immediately return requests for further comment.