President Barack Obama promised to “usher in a new era of open government” and “a new standard of openness” but as the president reaches the end of his term in office it appears that transparency can be added to the long list of broken promises from this administration.
According to an analysis of open-government requests filed by Bloomberg News, nineteen of 20 cabinet-level agencies failed to reveal the cost of travel by top officials violating the time frame requirements of the Freedom of Information Act. In all, just eight of the 57 federal agencies met Bloomberg’s request for those documents within the 20-day window required by the Act.
Eric Newton, senior adviser at the Knight Foundation, a Miami-based group that promotes citizen engagement, said agencies have no excuse not to rapidly disclose travel costs.
“In a 24/7 world, it should take two days, it should take two hours,” Newton said. “If it’s public, it should be just there.”
“Over the past four years, federal agencies have gone to great efforts to make government more transparent and more accessible than ever, to provide people with information that they can use in their daily lives,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, who pointed out that Obama received an award for his commitment to open government.
The March 2011 presentation of that award was closed to the press.
There has been much sharper scrutiny on the cost of government since the General Services Administration scandal surfaced that revealed that a 2010 Las Vegas junket, featuring a mind reader and a clown, cost taxpayers more than $823,000. The GSA almost tripled its expenditures for conferences from 2005 to 2010.
Another disturbing trend under the Obama administration is the number of exemptions issued to block the release of information. During the first year of hope and change, cabinet agencies employed a 50 percent jump in exemptions from the last year of the presidency of George W. Bush. That number has since gone down by 21 percent but still remains above any level seen during the Bush administration.
The majority of the exemptions came from the Department of Homeland Security.
Staff shortages and compliance costs are some of the excuses often cited to excuse Obama’s failures to uphold his transparency pledge.
“I don’t think the administration has been very good at all on open-government issues,” said Katherine Meyer, a Washington attorney who has been filing open records requests since the late 1970s. “The Obama administration is as bad as any of them, and to some extent worse.”
Meyer was able to get the $38,000 fee for the Center for Auto Safety’s request of records on the U.S. auto bailout by successfully arguing that the request was in the public interest.
The government’s own website, FOIA.gov, which monitors its response to filings shows that the number of backlogged requests grew 20 percent from 2010 to 2011 to 83,490 filings.