8 March 2012
Three years on from President Obama’s declaration that he would lead the most open and transparent administration in history, there is a mounting disillusionment among government watchers who had been excited by that commitment. Comparative surveys indicate that progress in some areas is offset by regression in others. Rather than a new era of openness, matters are going backwards. A Washington lawyer with a Freedom of Information practice has indicated that of six administrations she has engaged with, the current Government is worst.
The Politico website this week carries an article listing the deterioration, including-
  • using anti transparency arguments to oppose FOI Act requests
  • an “unprecedented wave of prosecutions” of whistleblowers and alleged leakers
  • poor follow-through on open government plans
While the White House promotes the President’s transparency directive to make government data readily accessible on line, there are criticisms from open government groups that documents requested in 2005 have still not been released, and that many agencies are charging exorbitantly for the disclosure of information. Some see the appointment of the open government director as Ambassador to the Czech Republic in mid 2012 as symbolic.
The Administration which in the first flush of office released memos about waterboarding under the Bush Government then seemed to run into problems; reticence to release material about the interrogation of terrorism suspects soon developed into what has been called an untouchable bubble of non accountability about national security. “It’s just incredible for an administration that says it’s committed to an unprecedented level of transparency” …. to be telling the Supreme Court that it won’t … “accept long established Supreme Court precedent in favour of disclosure”.
The jargon in the White House has evolved from “open government” to “good government” and now to “21st century Government”. It appears that the reluctance of most bureaucrats in most jurisdictions to commit to openness is no different in the United States. As the Politico article concludes, “you don’t make (cultural change) happen just by issuing proclamations”
Cultural change is best achieved by committed leaders. Reservations by the President seem to have arrested moves for greater government transparency in the United States.
The New Zealand Ombudsmen’s 2011 Annual Report shows that there are more complaints (nearly 400) about the non disclosure of requested information by NZ Police, Department of Corrections and the Ministry of Social Development than all the other Public Service and Non Public Service departments combined. The Ministry of Defence doesn’t feature on the list – probably because of the security and government relations exemption provisions of the Official Information Act.