WCL Gathers Openness-in-Government Community on Obama Transparency Policies


WASHINGTON, DC, Jan. 29, 2009American University Washington College of Law (WCL) today held an academic conference addressing the substance and priorities of new information policies recommended for adoption and implementation by the Obama Administration. It included a recommendation-prioritization survey that will lead to a formal communication to key federal agencies on behalf of the openness-in-government community.

The conference was conducted by the Collaboration on Government Secrecy (CGS), a project at WCL that serves as a source of knowledge and legal expertise on government openness, undue government secrecy, and related policy issues. Entitled "Information Policy in the New Administration," this conference gathered together an assemblage of principal government openness advocates and most interested members of the public to review and discuss the recommendations made for specific new policies on Freedom of Information Act disclosure, the use of information technology, electronic information dissemination, and overall government transparency, among other related subjects.

In a novel development, after a full day's discussion of these subjects with dozens of competing proposals for such government-wide reform, CGS concluded the conference by conducting an on-site survey of all program attendees in order to develop a consolidated set of specific, prioritized recommendations to the Obama Administration on transparency/secrecy issues.

As CGS announced to all assembled, the purpose of this survey is to establish an openness-in-government community-wide consensus on which government information policies and proposals are most important for the Obama Administration to address, sooner rather than later, amid its many other competing priorities. Once this survey's responses are tabulated and analyzed, CGS will send the results to the White House, the Department of Justice, the Office of Management and Budget, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the General Services Administration for their consideration.

The specific recommendations under consideration were such information-policy reform measures as: "Take steps to reduce or eliminate overclassification, including through a new national security classification executive order." "Ensure that necessary steps are taken as quickly as possible to achieve comprehensive TARP/bailout/ financial stimulus transparency." "Return the FOIA ombudsman back to NARA from Justice and fund it." "Harmonize privacy rules in a pro-privacy direction, including data protection." And: "Administer the Freedom of Information Act in a new spirit of responsiveness and openness, through very aggressive and comprehensive government-wide implementation of the replacement to the Ashcroft FOIA Memorandum." The survey was designed in collaboration with the Journalism Division of American University's School of Communication, and arrangements have been made for it also to be available to the general public on CGS's Web site in order to gain further input from the public on these vital public policy issues.

"We've taken this extraordinary step so as to best advise the new administration as to which remedial measures are both most important and most urgent for attention in the near term," said CGS Executive Director Daniel J. Metcalfe. "Everyone knowledgeable about this subject area, not to mention the extreme secrecy of the past eight years, knows that there's a long way to go -- so having a very specific set of recommendations differentiated on a ‘sooner-rather-than-later' basis can matter greatly."

This conference was carefully scheduled to be held just nine days after the beginning of the Obama Administration, with the expectation that at the time of his inauguration President Obama would heed the call to begin reversing the Bush Administration era of secrecy right away – and this prediction turned out to be right on target.

In fact, President Obama issued two "Day One" memoranda that direct the head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Attorney General, and the federal government's new "Chief Technology Officer" at the White House to come up with recommendations for the issuance of a new "Open Government Directive" and a new Attorney General FOIA Memorandum within the next 120 days (i.e., by May 21). These actions perfectly framed the conference's planned content and allowed the attendees to immediately respond to President Obama's accompanying call for a more "participatory" and "collaborative" process of government policy formulation.

The conference was attended by more than 100 persons, including academics, members of the media and media-related groups, and representatives of nearly every major openness-in-government organization. It was made possible by a foundation grant from the Open Society Institute, under auspices of its new Transparency and Integrity Fund, which supports the promotion of government accountability through transparency and citizen involvement in democratic processes both in the United States and abroad. Additionally, the program was Webcast live, allowing it to reach an especially broad audience. The Webcast is now available for viewing on the WCL Special Events Webcast site.

The conference agenda also included a keynote luncheon presentation by Gary M. Stern, general counsel of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), who announced that NARA had just the previous day taken steps to fund and establish a special "FOIA ombudsman" office – called the Office of Government Information Services – in accordance with a mandate of the 2007 FOIA Amendments. Under both recent FOIA legislation and a Bush Administration memorandum on "pseudosecrecy" -- i.e., the growing proliferation and use by federal agencies of "safeguarding labels" such as "For Official Use Only" -- NARA now plays an increasingly visible role in the government-wide administration of such parts of the secrecy/transparency landscape.

And among the more than 20 other conference speakers was Franklin S. Reeder, a former high-level official of the Office of Management and Budget who was a senior member of the Obama/Biden Transition Team, for which he served as an expert on OMB operations and worked on the presidential Transparency and Open Government Memorandum. He provided a particularly timely perspective as he emphasized that it does take time for an incoming presidential administration to be able to address all potential reform areas, especially when there are as many enormous competing priorities as the Obama Administration now faces.

This program was part of the annual Founders' Celebration, a series of events in spring 2009 at WCL that will explore some of the most important legal issues facing the nation and the world today. CGS held two such programs in 2008 and has two more scheduled to be held on March 16 ("FOI Day") and April 28 of this year.

For additional information, please visit the CGS website. Contact the Office of Special Events and Continuing Legal Education by email at secle@wcl.american.edu or by calling (202) 274-4075. Media should contact Franki Fitterer at (202) 274-4279. All events take place at American University Washington College of Law, 4801 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.


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