Obama deputy: Transparency a priority, but takes time

Monday, March 15, 2010

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

    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.

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