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White House promises more transparency in second Open Government plan

White House promises more transparency in second Open Government plan

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President Barack Obama (Pete Souza/White House via Flickr)
President Barack Obama (Pete Souza/White House via Flickr)

Earlier this week, the Obama administration released its second Open Government National Action Plan, building on an earlier initiative to make government more transparent. Both documents were published to help meet the standards of the Open Government Project, an international agreement founded by the US and seven other countries in 2011, and they're behind much of the administration's "big data" push, which strives to put government records in the public eye. With the newest plan, the White House says it's committed to "concrete and measurable goals for achieving a more transparent, participatory, and collaborative government."

Some of the plan is meant to streamline and expand services that were built under the first action plan, including White House petition platform We the People and, a repository of data collected by federal agencies. Other parts involve getting citizens involved in things like local budget development and public comment on regulations. But the most interesting parts lay out the broad strokes of Obama's plan to expand transparency of federal records, whether by improving Freedom of Information Act records processing or declassifying more documents.

The last action plan created a 'professionalized' FOIA system, but not a tech-savvy one

To understand the White House's latest action plan, it's helpful to look at a final review of the original, conducted in March 2013 by the Open the Government coalition. The group, which counts the EFF, Electronic Privacy Information Center, and dozens of other organizations, found that the administration successfully followed the letter of many of its goals, and that it made successful strides towards making government information more accessible. However, in FOIA, declassification, and other areas, it either fell short or completed only the minimum requirements to reach its goals. Its effort to "professionalize" FOIA employee operations, for example, was successful, but "the state of the use of technology for FOIA processing is still well below the modern expectations of civil society organizations."

Now, the administration promises it will adopt a centralized FOIA portal, develop core practices that will be the same across the over 100 agencies that accept requests, and improve both agency policies and employee training in hopes of working through the backlog that's accumulated because of inefficiency. It's also establishing a "FOIA modernization advisory committee" to take public comment and create a better system — hopefully putting an end to things like the broken fax machine that hobbled Pentagon submission requests back in September.

New declassification tools could help work through a massive backlog of requests

The administration's declassification project will get a similar advisory committee, and agencies will begin testing new document analysis systems that could make the process quicker. It will also create a monitoring system to keep track of records and notify agencies when documents are ready for declassification reviews. The overview of Obama's first action plan essentially found that administration had made good on its promise to declassify more records and start addressing the huge backlog, but that it just wasn't able to do so fast enough. In addition to overall structural changes, the administration is looking for a better way to declassify historical nuclear program documents and presidential records.

White House petitions and are getting an overhaul

Historical documents, however, are of much less interest right now than the surveillance and intelligence records that could shed light on programs we've discovered through Edward Snowden. In this document, the administration reiterates promises it made months ago, saying it's committed to declassifying as much information about government surveillance as possible and seek input from civil liberties experts. Intelligence agencies have unmistakably begun to release more information since the leaks, and it's likely we'll see declassifications continue at a similar rate next year.

Presciently, the March review praised Obama's whistleblower protection legislation but cited "deep concerns" about an exception for national security, though not for the reasons that were often discussed after the first Snowden leaks. Instead, it said the loophole would allow agencies to retaliate against whistleblowers by arbitrarily saying they had access to "sensitive" information regardless of their actual duties. This time around, the agency's policies are expansive but vague — any changes made from them may well be moot for actual whistleblowers.

Obama has a few more years to implement his open government plans, and some projects, like the We the People improvements, are well underway. On a larger scale, though, it must still address major transparency issues that can't be solved simply with better technology, as well as keep working on technological fixes outside the realm of transparency, like