President Obama on Wednesday received an award from a coalition of government transparency groups in celebration of Sunshine Week, a promotion for open government practices. But two years after Obama insisted that “transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency,” just how much sunshine has this administration let in?
The 2011 Knight Open Government Survey reveals some cloudiness in the Obama administration’s open government policies. The survey measured government agency performance in responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, a 1966 law that allows the public (that includes you) to ask for access to government documents. This year, the Knight Foundation found that of the 90 government agencies responsible for responding to FOIA requests, 49 have actually complied with processing the requests.
It’s a troubling statistic, considering how crucial FOIA requests have been in ensuring a transparent and accountable government. For example, A 2008 FOIA lawsuit filed by the ACLUconcerning the in-custody deaths of immigration detainees publicized documents that, among other things, exposed government efforts to cover up its wrongdoings. The ACLU has filed a subsequent FOIA request seeking documents related to the sexual abuse of detainees in immigration detention.
Now the news about transparency isn’t all bad. The 49 government agencies complying with FOIA procedure is way up from last year’s 13, and the ACLU applauded President Obama’s 2009 “Open Government Directive,” an executive order that outlined concrete actions that government agencies might make to increase openness in government. But even then, ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer was hesitant about the government weighing national security concerns at the cost of public disclosure:
While the Obama administration should be commended for the issuance of this directive, we remain concerned that executive agencies are invoking national security concerns as a pretext to suppress records that relate to government misconduct.
Unfortunately, these concerns are still largely relevant. In a 2010 FOIA request, the ACLU sought documentation concerning the secrecy surrounding the government’s use of drone attacks, and the administration’s indictments of government whistleblowers alarmingly undermines significant transparency reforms.
So have we realized an entirely new “era of openness” that the president had us anticipating in 2009? Not entirely, no. But organizations like the ACLU, informed citizens, and writers are in real pursuit of a completely transparent and accountable government. And some important steps have been made toward keeping the public informed about its government. We can still celebrate another Sunshine Week knowing there’s some bright side to it all.