White House Disputes Washington Post Story on Transparency

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The Obama Administration faces criticism, and lawsuits, after pledges to foster an “open government.”

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Today the Washington Post reported on disappointment over the Obama Administration’s record on governmental transparency. According to the Post:

More than 300 individuals and groups have sued the government to get records in the year since President Obama pledged that his administration would be the most open in history.

In case after case, the plaintiffs say little has changed since the Bush administration years, when most began their quests for records. Agencies still often fight requests for disclosure, contending that national security and internal decision-making need to be protected.

The Administration disputes the Post’s numbers and says that actually “22 fewer FOIA cases were filed in 2009 than 2008.” But of course, that still leaves a couple hundred FOIA suits.

The Administration also points to other steps it has taken to release public information, from disclosing White House visitor logs to creating Data.Gov. It does so by continuing to trumpet transparency as if more is always better. “During the course of the president’s first year in office, more has been done than ever before to make our government open and transparent,” according to the President’s spokesperson quoted in the Post story.

The Obama Administration’s commitment to open government is laudable. Why, then, does it engender the kind of disappointment the Post reports?

From Obama’s first day in office, the Administration’s public relations strategy has set for itself a transparency trap. As I have written elsewhere, the Administration’s rhetoric creates high expectations and risks worsening public disappointment and cynicism because no matter how much information the Administration discloses “it will always be possible to make government more transparent.”

To prevent further disappointment — and to be fully open with the public — the Administration would do well to acknowledge in its defense that there are, after all, justifiable limits to governmental transparency. It is not just that “change takes time and persistence,” as the White House claims. Rather, any responsible administration needs to resist at least certain kinds of disclosures and, as a result, will still find itself subject to FOIA lawsuits.

Cary Coglianese

Cary Coglianese is the Edward B. Shils Professor of Law, Professor of Political Science, and Director of the Penn Program on Regulation at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He is the founder of and faculty advisor to RegBlog.