Despite problems and crises at every turn, right now President-elect Barack Obama has the goodwill of the majority on his side. He will enter the Oval Office in a strong position to affect significant change, in part because of the honeymoon he’s on with the public as well as the media.
But as soon as he takes office, he could strengthen his position even more — by opening up some federal doors that the Bush administration has tightly shut.
Two weeks ago, a coalition of media organizations, the Sunshine in Government Initiative, suggested that Obama take four immediate steps to bring back open government. If Obama follows such advice, he will not only strength the public’s right to know what is really going on in Washington and elsewhere, but he would instill even greater confidence in his leadership.
In a news release, the SGI specified its recommendations for Obama:
• Restore the presumption of disclosure across the executive branch.
• Create an independent, online ombudsman to help citizens access their government.
• Ban agencies from proposing or endorsing unnecessary statutory exemptions from disclosure.
• Speak on the record, and urge his senior deputies and aides to do the same, in all statements about policy and current news about public matters.
These recommendations are intended to reverse the trend toward a more closed federal government as seen in the eight-year tenure of the Bush administration. For good reason, the media are interested in seeing government more transparent — but not simply because it makes our jobs easier and our reporting more accurate. Open government also makes democracy healthier. Citizens, not just the media, have a vested interest in transparency; without it, government becomes corrupt and citizens are handicapped by a lack of understanding about what’s really going. Knowledge is power, so keeping information contained is a way to take power away from the people.
Obama won with a “we” approach to governance: Yes we can; we are the answer we’ve been seeking. Removing the eight-year veil of secrecy over our federal agencies will demonstrate that he meant what he said during the campaign. And it will further the public’s confidence in his ability to lead.