Dear Mr. President: Here’s How to Secure Your Open Government Legacy

During last night’s State of The Union Address, President Obama pledged to be more transparent to the American people and to the world about the Administration’s policy regarding the targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists, saying, “I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we're doing things the right way.” President Obama is right, but the need for greater transparency goes well beyond the Administration’s counterterrorism policies.

On the first day of his first term in office, President Obama committed to creating “unprecedented levels of Openness in Government.” Below, we outline the steps President Obama should take to ensure the legacy as the ‘transparency president’ he is surely seeking.

The following letter previously appeared as a guest opinion on The Hill's Congress Blog.

Dear Mr. President:

Four years ago, we welcomed your ambitious pledge to hold yourself and your administration to a new standard of openness. You recognized that “openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.” For our part, we pledged to work with you to achieve that lofty goal. Today we remain as committed as ever, and urge you to implement during the first 100 days of your second term an agenda that advances the promised transparency. It is as critical today as it was four years ago that openness be the default position for the federal government.

We applaud the strides made during your first term to proactively release more information online, including on such sites as data.gov, recovery.gov and USAspending.gov. But more can be done toward achieving transparency. In the spirit of helping you work toward your objective, we offer some suggestions. 

To ensure that the actions of federal agencies in complying with the Freedom of Information Act match the "presumption in favor of disclosure" you mandated, we urge you to ensure that the Justice Department’s litigation strategy reflects the mandate. We further urge you to set a deadline for all agencies to update FOIA regulations, with a focus on making it easier to obtain information.  You should also push agencies to join the multi-agency shared service, FOIAonline. More directly, you should make FOIA a vehicle of last resort, not the first, by requiring federal agencies to post information about their agencies and other information that helps the public better hold agencies accountable.

You have made strides toward bringing transparency to federal spending through your work on the Recovery Act. In moving forward, we urge you to encourage the Government Accountability and Transparency Board to put new emphasis on transparency. A plan is needed to increase data quality on USAspending.gov, and to make it possible for other databases, such as those about tax compliance, to be linked to spending information through a publicly available identifier. New tools need to be developed to allow all recipients of federal funds to create electronic reports that can be used to show how federal funds flow.

Numerous congressional committees, commissions, and advisory groups have identified the problem of the government’s predisposition toward secrecy under the guise of national security. Also undermining your legacy of openness is an increased reliance on secrecy in judicial matters, including the too-frequent invocation of state secrets. The Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) identified the need for presidential leadership to break through bureaucratic stasis in reforming the United States’ classification system. As a first step in eliminating overuse and misuse of secrecy, we urge you to set up the PIDB-recommended White House-led Security Classification Steering Committee.

We appreciate your leadership on protections for “whistleblowers” that has led to new laws and an Executive Order.  We urge you to now ensure the intelligence agencies meaningfully implement that order, and make clear to government managers and supervisors that there is a zero-tolerance policy for suppression and retaliation. This would illustrate your continued commitment to protecting whistleblowers, who often make our government more effective and accountable to taxpayers.  An additional directive to criminal justice leaders discouraging overreaching prosecutions and prosecutorial threats also would be welcomed.

We would be derelict, Mr. President, if we did not express concerns regarding signing statements, which you denounced as a member of the U.S. Senate and as presidential candidate. Yet in your recent signing statement on the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013, you appear to offer the same type of vexing rationalizations you once condemned. You asserted the authority to “supervise, control, and correct employees’ communications with Congress in cases where such communications would … reveal information that is properly privileged or otherwise confidential.” The balance of powers was part of our founders’ purposeful manner of keeping the government responsible to the people. We believe respecting the limits of each branch’s powers and full transparency in the exercise of government are the best tools for open and accountable government.

Your leadership can reinvigorate public engagement in your administration’s signature openness initiative, the multinational Open Government Partnership. We urge you to set an example for all countries participating in the partnership by engaging civil society broadly in developing the next U.S. plan and by making it ambitious in its commitments toward true transparency.

Mr. President, we again thank you for your efforts to establish an open and accountable government. By recommitting yourself and your administration to these efforts, and pushing forward a strong open-government agenda, you can make significant strides toward achieving that openness in the first 100 days of your new term.

Most respectfully,

OpenTheGovernment.org Coalition
Patrice McDermott, Executive Director

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