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FOIA Facts: The Most Transparent Administration in History?

By Scott A. Hodes, Published on June 19, 2011

If you search the phrase “most transparent administration in history” you will retrieve over 175,000 hits. Many of them ridicule the Obama administration for promising to be the most open and transparent White House in history. However, as there are really no accepted standards to determine openness and transparency, it really is a subjective game.

Looking back, the President’s statement probably wasn’t the wisest thing to say on his first day in office – not because he meant to not have an open presidency, but because anytime his administration doesn’t release something immediately, the statement is used against the administration. {see President Obama Reestablishes Openness for Government Documents].

I don’t know what administration was the most open and transparent in history. George Washington probably didn’t publicize every piece of intelligence he received during the Whiskey Rebellion; nor did Lincoln announce military strategy to the rebels during the Civil War. Administrations simply need to keep some matters private. So the question is what administration kept the least amount of material private? Again, I don’t know the answer – but that is the measure needed to decide “most open and transparent administration in history.” The measure is not each time the administration doesn’t release something in a timely fashion to say it has failed the test.

What the President should have said upon entering office was that his administration would strive to improve the openness and transparency of those agencies the Executive Branch was responsible for. However, that statement is definitely not very sexy and doesn’t grab headlines – good and bad. This administration has tried to improve openness and transparency; however it has met a number of barricades from Congress, the bureaucracy and its own appointees. One way to make sure the administration is working on its transparency goals is to have someone high up in the government, either at the Department of Justice or the Office of Management and Budget to truly be in charge of the administration’s goals. Currently, there is no one doing that. This person would make sure that when the Department of Homeland Security comes up with a crazy policy to let appointees slow down FOIA requests, that they are removed from office. Further, this individual would be the point of contact for congressional testimony ,and would be able to voice the needs of the government to fully staff FOIA Offices with qualified staff. This individual would also be able to work on the administration’s initiative to create a job series for FOIA personnel. This individual could also be the point of contact in requiring agencies to make proactive disclosures of information.

What has been the most transparent administration in history? I don’t know the answer to that – but the journey to fulfilling this goal, that is what is important. This administration really just needs the right folks to guide it.