Obama memos aptly make the case for government openness


I’ll have to grant the new Obama administration its due for quickly establishing a strong stance on the public’s fundamental right to access government information, basically putting the default setting at openness and explaining that mere embarrassment of public officials is an inadequate excuse for secrecy.

According to a Washington Post report, the office of the White House press secretary sent out a memo to agencies today spelling this position in some rather strong words:

“The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

“All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.

“The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.”

Another press secretary memo relayed the principle involved:

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

It’ll take more than a couple of memos to whip the bureaucrats into shape and change their mindset, but it is a start.