It's only his first day in office, but President Obama has already signaled a serious commitment to transparency and accountability in government. The President ordered federal agencies in a memorandum released today to approach the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) "with a clear presumption: in the face of doubt, openness prevails."
This message is in line with advice EFF and other nonprofits gave the Obama Transition Team on transparency issues shortly after the election.
According to Obama's memo:
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.
This statement is almost certainly meant to address a controversial memo issued by John Ashcroft in the wake of 9/11, which ordered agencies to disclose information only after considering all possible reasons to withhold it, and assured them that government lawyers would defend their decisions in court unless they had no "sound legal basis." Many open government advocates believe Ashcroft's policy effectively gutted the FOIA over the past several years. Today's memo doesn't explicitly reverse that policy, but directs the incoming attorney general to issue new FOIA guidelines to agencies "reaffirming the commitment to accountability and transparency." This is a big step in the right direction.
The memo doesn't stop there. It goes on to say:
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.
Toward that end, the memo orders the Office of Management and Budget to issue guidance on how agencies can improve information dissemination, including through the use of new technologies.
We've still got some unanswered questions. While we're hopeful that this new era of openness will make our FOIA work easier, it remains to be seen how or when the memo's directives will be implemented. Regardless, we're excited and optimistic about the President's emphasis on open government, and look forward to the Administration's next steps.
UPDATE: President Obama issued two more documents related to government transparency today. A new executive order reverses changes made in recent years to the Presidential Records Act, while a second memorandum provides the Administration's general policy on transparency and open government.