Transparent Intentions

January 22nd, 2009 by Phil Mattera

In some of its first official acts, the Obama Administration has set the hearts of disclosure advocates atwitter at the prospect of a new era of open government. “For a long time now there’s been too much secrecy in this city,” said the new President. “Transparency and rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

After issuing a memorandum on openness and an executive order repealing restrictive Bush Administration policies on the release of government records, including those relating to former presidents, Obama said: “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.”

Transparency will be an issue in some of the administration’s largest initiatives, especially the $800 billion or so that will be spent for economy recovery. The signs there look promising as well. The 258-page text of the proposed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 posted last week by the House Appropriations Committee includes some impressive provisions on disclosure. The bill calls for the creation of a special website called Recovery.gov “to foster greater accountability and transparency in the use of funds made available in this Act” (Section 1226).

Aside from general material on the stimulus program, the site is supposed to include detailed data on all contracts awarded and grants issued. However, the bill does state that “proprietary data that is required to be kept confidential under applicable Federal or State law or regulation shall be redacted before posting” (Section 201). Given the restrictive practices in some jurisdictions, this will require some watching.

Another provision of the legislation would create an Accountability and Transparency Board chaired by the President’s Chief Performance Officer (a new position created by Obama). The main aim of the board would be to “prevent waste, fraud and abuse,” but it would also be charged with overseeing practices regarding the reporting of contract and grant information. (Sections 1221-1225). Finally, the bill would require reporting on “the number of jobs created or sustained by the Federal funds…including information on job sectors and pay levels” (Section 12001).

If these provisions survive in the legislation that passes Congress, they will make the recovery act vastly more transparent than the bailout program carried out by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in recent months. The need to bring some openness to the bailout was expressed by Timothy Geithner, Obama’s choice to succeed Paulson, during his confirmation hearing this week. Although most of the hearing was taken up with Geithner’s personal tax fiddles, the nominee declared that the Obama Administration intends to “fundamentally reform” the bailout program with “tough conditions to protect the taxpayer and the necessary transparency to allow the American people to see how and where their money is being spent and the results those investments are delivering.”

This is what watchdog groups have been demanding since the bailout first started. Last month, more than 75 organizations led by Open the Government.org and the National Taxpayers Union sent an open letter to Congress demanding bailout transparency. They are now planning to relaunch that effort.

So far, the Obama Administration is saying all the right things about transparency and accountability, but it has a monumental task before it to make truly open government a reality. We need to make sure it does not cut any corners.

Note: This piece has been crossposted on the Good Jobs First sister blog Clawback.

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