Sorry, we know we’re late on this…but it’s worth cataloging, for the record, two of the Obama administration’s important steps towards restoring openness in American government.
First is the “presumption in the favor of disclosure” that the new President has instructed all Federal agencies to abide by when fulfilling Freedom of Information Act requests. As the president’s memo states,
“The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.”
While the proof will be in the pudding (implementation), we (as well as most FOIA advocates and journalists in the US) are impressed so far.
Second are the new ethics requirements that the President has instructed all Federal appointees to abide by. The new requirements are notable in their tighter control of the “revolving door” effect — the pattern of senior officials leaving government to work for the special interests they previously regulated. The most impressive provision covers senior officials who leave the Obama administration, who “agree, upon leaving Government service, not to lobby any covered executive branch official or non career Senior Executive Service appointee for the remainder of the Administration [emphasis added].”
At Global Integrity, which is likely the only organization that has collected data globally on post-government employment restrictions such as these, we’ve never seen anything quite like this. We’ll see how long this lasts (recall that former President Bill Clinton caved on a similar matter at the end of his second term in the face of pressure from his own staff) but again, these are important and symbolically significant first steps.
Look for new data on post-government employment restrictions and access to information in the forthcoming Global Integrity Report: 2008.
— Nathaniel Heller
As an aside, I looked for an official image of Obama signing these executive orders. These government images are traditionally in the public domain and are very useful for little media outlets (like us) who can’t afford an AP photo feed. The administration’s new photographers are quite good, but the images so far have been delivered to select media outlets rather than publicly available. This is, I’m pretty sure, simply a capacity issue as the new staff settles in, but it illustrates the point of the post above — intentions are good, but implementation is really where the impact must be measured.