White House transparency promise a work in progress

On his first full day in the Oval Office - a time typically filled with grand, symbolic gestures - President Barack Obama signed an executive order mandating all departments and agencies to "establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration."

On his first full day in the Oval Office – a time typically filled with grand, symbolic gestures – President Barack Obama signed an executive order mandating all departments and agencies to “establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” Though the administration has taken many steps to keep in line with that mandate, some decisions have left critics wondering if it's a promise that can be kept.

As a result of the directive, the administration has often employed social media initiatives to directly reach consumers. For example, it launched Recovery.gov to detail stimulus funds, numerous agencies started YouTube channels, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) used Twitter to communicate with the public about swine flu. The president also changed the name of its Office of Public Liaison to the Office of Public Engagement, which “will seek to engage as many Americans as possible in the difficult work of changing this country,” according to a statement.

That change in strategy from previous administrations has increased the quantity of behind-the-scenes material reaching the public, says Torod Neptune, SVP and US public affairs practice leader at Waggener Edstrom.

“There is a fairly consistent view that what we've seen is pretty significant and dramatic in terms of what the history has been,” he adds. “What is clear is that this is the most aggressive use of technology and the Internet we've ever seen by an administration; there've been some pretty significant strides here.”

Yet Neptune cautions that the administration will ultimately be judged after a longer period of time as to how well it spreads transparency through the Beltway.

“Long term, we'll see as the administration gets its legs in DC how transparency evolves throughout the government, but through [just more than 100 days], this has been unprecedented,” he adds.

Of course, every newly minted administration has to choose which campaign promises it will keep. The Obama White House, which made transparency a talking point during the campaign, drew the ire of some critics for failing to post the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act on the White House Web site for five days before signing, as was promised during the campaign.

Open government proponents are conflicted as they weigh such missteps amid a greater move toward transparency, notes Jeff Mascott, MD at Adfero Group and a former aide to Republican lawmakers.

“I think, in general, the public welcomes a move toward transparency and openness and the ability to participate,” he says. “Although, there is a watchdog community that is a bit conflicted right now.”

Citizens often fall into party lines on the issue. Yet, even some liberal supporters are unhappy with the president's recent decision not to release photos allegedly showing abuse of detainees, notes Jim Lake, president of Gibraltar Associates.

“There are two schools of thought here,” he says. “The hardcore supporters are buying it. You have another side of the coin that thinks that he made a lot of promises that he is not living up to… The American Civil Liberties Union is quite upset that he made the decision [not to release photos] after he said on the campaign trail that he would.”

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