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Transparency: The Tale of the Tape

Norm Eisen, special counsel to the President for ethics and government reform, sets the record straight on FOIA requests under the Obama Administration.

Now that the Administration has served for more than a year, we are starting to see real progress on the openness and transparency front.  For the most part, we have gotten high marks in this area, but we take exception to the views expressed in a Washington Post story today.

The Post acknowledges that, in his first full day in office, the President directed federal agencies to become more open, including by applying a presumption of openness to requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act.  The Post questions whether these policies are having a real impact. 

The numbers demonstrate that they are.  Contrary to the Post's assertions, the amount of litigation is already declining.  The Department of Justice found that 22 fewer FOIA cases were filed in 2009 than 2008.  And agencies are making more voluntary releases of information.  The Department of Justice granted 13 percent more FOIA requests in part in 2009 than it did in the last year of the previous Administration, and granted 5 percent more in full than it did in the previous year.  Those are meaningful increases that illustrate the impact of the Administration’s FOIA policy. 

The government isn’t just being more open when people ask for information.  At the White House and across the agencies, we are using innovative platforms to engage citizens in shaping government policy.  And in some instances we are taking actions to make government more open and transparent that prevent Americans from needing to file FOIA requests at all.  The President issued an executive order to make it easier for the public to access historic records that are currently classified but no longer need to be kept secret to protect national security. now hosts over 1,000 sets of government information available for download, and agencies' websites are being constantly updated to include more content.  And for the first time in history, the White House is voluntarily publishing visitor records online – enabling the American people to see who is visiting the people's house.  Click here for a list of our open government accomplishments so far.

We did this in the first year of the Administration, even though some said it would be impossible to change entrenched governmental practices on an issue like FOIA.  We recognize that this is just a start, and that there is much more work to be done.  Change takes time and persistence, and we expect government to become even more open in the years to come.  But we know we have established a firm foundation and we are moving in the right direction.

Norm Eisen is special counsel to the President for ethics and government reform