On his first full day of work, President Obama faced a roomful of senior staff and Cabinet secretaries and outlined his expectations for open government:
"For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city. The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed," Obama told about 100 staffers in an auditorium in the Old Executive Office Building, next to the White House.
"That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known."
The words have a familiar ring. Two years ago, the first executive order Charlie Crist signed as Florida's governor created the state Office of Open Government, and in his first news conference he said he planned to set a standard for the rest of the country on transparency in government.
No politician comes into office promising secrecy, but administrations throughout history have closed ranks to prevent disclosures of embarrassing policies and decisions. The question for the Obama administration is this: Will it adhere to its principles of open government and transparency, as the president pledged, even when disclosure might be embarrassing?
Meanwhile, Obama's ambitious agenda for improving citizens' access to government doings — and for allowing citizens to comment on them — has presented technological and legal challenges the new administration did not foresee, leaving uncertain how fully and how quickly the president can deliver on his pledges.
Obama used his first days in office to issue two groundbreaking memorandums. One directed the Justice Department to issue new, consistent guidelines to agency heads for complying with the Freedom of Information Act. Willingness to comply with the FOIA varies by agency, and under the Bush administration it often took months, if not years, for requests to be honored.
The second memo ordered the Office of Management and Budget to issue by late May the outline for an "Open Government Directive," which will require all federal agencies to implement the principles of transparency and citizen participation.
The OMB also is using an in-house Internet tool, called MAX, to solicit ideas from federal employees nationwide.
"Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public," Obama wrote in the order. "Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public feedback to identify information of greatest use to the public."
Mechanically, however, that's proving more problematic than the president and his advisers expected. Consider this: According to a report by the Federal Web Managers Council, a group of Internet experts from across the federal bureaucracy, there are approximately 24,000 U.S. government Web sites, including many that "tout organizational achievements instead of effectively delivering basic information and services."
And they are spread among hundreds of agencies and subagencies under 15 Cabinet-level departments, as well as dozens of independent executive branch agencies, many of which have their own policies for determining what to post and how to present information.
In late December, as Obama's presidential transition team laid the groundwork for its new initiatives, the Federal Web Managers Council issued a report that detailed key barriers to more transparency, including a lack of consistency in what's allowed, no comprehensive strategy for using the Internet to communicate with citizens, and rules that limit federal employees' access to social-networking sites like YouTube and Facebook. Agency and department heads also worry about IT security, how using free Internet tools and software might violate restrictions on accepting "gifts" or run afoul of government procurement procedures, and rules against federal employees signing those ubiquitous Internet user agreements.
"In many cases, the focus is more on what can't be done rather than what can be done," the report said. Ellen Miller, executive director and co-founder of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan advocate for government transparency, said her group is talking informally with the White House about ways to improve access to information.
"I give them a lot of credit — and I'm always ready to be critical if we need to be critical — for trying to get stuff done, but I think it's a shock in terms of the legal impediments and the technological impediments," Miller said. "They're just learning now about all of those things, and they seem to be attacking them one by one. It's not moving as fast as they would want, and it's not moving as fast as we would want, but it is moving."
Already, Obama has made exceptions to his promised openness. He promised to post all bills on www.WhiteHouse.gov before he signs them. But he has signed two measures, including the 1,071-page economic stimulus bill, without posting them. His administration has sided with Bush in a lawsuit seeking to investigate whether millions of White House e-mails were wrongly expunged during the Bush years. And his administration has been criticized for failing to provide details of a waiver allowing William J. Lynn, former lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon, to become the deputy secretary of defense.
Obama had pledged to ban former lobbyists from dealing with issues they recently lobbied on, unless they were granted a waiver with conditions that mitigate their potential conflict of interest.
After complaints on Capitol Hill, OMB director Peter Orszag sent Congress a letter providing some of the conditions required of Lynn. Orszag also released the text of the waiver, which says simply that Lynn has been exempted from the lobbyist provision, but agrees to abide by other aspects of the administration's ethics pledge.
Fred Wertheimer, a veteran Washington open-government advocate and president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan watchdog group, has praised Obama's "genuine commitment" to transparency so far, but says the White House should be more forthcoming about exemptions to its personnel policies.
"I don't know what the rationale is for not making public the waivers and explanations for why waivers are being given," he said. "That information should be available to the public unless there's some reason for not making it available, and I don't know of a reason."
Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.