On Transparency, Talk Trumps Action

In the heady first days of the administration, President Obama issued a memorandum on transparency and open government that seemed it would set the ship of state on a course for transparency, participation, and collaboration. Many people expected that within the 120-day time-frame stated in the memo, the administration would issue the “Open Government Directive” it called for.

Well, 120 days from January 21 was May 21—and 200 days after that, we are finally going to see that open government plan. An announcement of it will be streamed live on the White House web site at 11:00 am.

It turns out that administrators didn’t fall woefully behind on President Obama’s instructions. His memorandum directed the not-yet-appointed Chief Technology Officer and others “to coordinate the development by appropriate executive departments and agencies, within 120 days, of recommendations for an Open Government Directive …” It was an instruction to coordinate on the writing of a directive, and within 120 days, people were surely coordinating.

Given the exciting campaign mantra of “change,” one could forgive people expecting the administration to set its course for good governance early. How un-change-like it is that nearly a quarter of the way through President Obama’s term (an eighth if he’s reelected), with old habits established and unlikely to be dislodged, we finally get that “open government plan.”

If only this good-government priority had been pursued as steadfastly as President Obama’s big-government priorities.

While coordinating and planning has gone on, President Obama has specifically declined to carry out an open government promise he made on the campaign trail. In fact, more than 100 times since he has been in office, he has declined to post online the bills sent him by Congress for five days of public review before he signs them. I’ll put up a new chart covering all the laws President Obama has signed sans sunlight later today.

Since I last wrote about this favorite topic, I learned of a new development, however. At some point earlier this year, the White House began posting links on Whitehouse.gov to bills that were heading its direction, a half-measure the White House told the New York Times it would take.

I failed to notice the existence of these pages, but I think it is forgivable error. There is no uniform structure to them, and there is no link I can discover on Whitehouse.gov that would bring anyone to them.

Based on my spot-checking, they haven’t been crawled by any search engine, so the only way a person could find them is by searching on Whitehouse.gov for phrases on the yet unseen pages or by searching the House or Senate bill numbers of bills that you know to look for because they have already passed into law.

This doesn’t fulfill the spirit of the Sunlight Before Signing pledge. It doesn’t give the public an opportunity to review final bills and comment before the president signs them. I doubt if a single one of the people who cheered when President Obama made his Sunlight Before Signing pledge has visited one of these pages and commented to the president as he told them they would be able to do.

There are further curiosities: The pages themselves are undated, but their “posted” dates, which appear in search results, are sometimes well beyond the date on which they became law. A Whitehouse.gov search for H.R. 2131, which became Public Law 111-70 on October 9th, shows that it was posted for comment on October 23rd.

Today the White House announces plans for dramatic steps forward on government transparency. But the steps it could have taken starting on day one remain promises unfulfilled. President Obama’s “Sunlight Before Signing” campaign pledge breaks every time he signs a bill without posting its final version at Whitehouse.gov for five days of public review before signing it.