Watchdogs: Obama Administration Became Less Transparent in Months Leading to Election

Open government advocates say the Obama administration became less transparent closer to the election.

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President Barack Obama reads briefing material while meeting with advisors inside his cabin at Camp David.

When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he promised a new level of transparency in government, issuing the Open Government Directive for greater government accountability and calling on agencies to be more cooperative in responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

But four years later, transparency watchdogs — and journalists — aren't impressed.

At a event held on Capitol Hill Monday, the Sunlight Foundation, an open government advocacy group, said that after what they saw as a promising start, the Obama administration is not shaping up to be as open as they hoped.

"The plumbing is stopped up," said Daniel Schuman, the policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation's Advisory Committee on Transparency. "Who do we need to call to unstop it?"

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FE_PR_121127ObamaCampDavid.jpg
President Barack Obama reads briefing material while meeting with advisors inside his cabin at Camp David.

The transparency groups in attendance largely believed that the 2010 departure of Norm Eisen, who was the White House "ethics czar," was part of the problem. Eisen has not been replaced.

Josh Gerstein, a reporter for Politico who covers the White House, described a "feedback loop" that existed under Eisen in which the White House could easily be reached with complaints about what wasn't working. But he said "the loop seems to have either slowed down or broken" in the months leading up to the 2012 election. "Some of it may have been this acute fear in advance of the election that some transparency initiative was going to put out some nugget of information that was going to cost the president the White House," he said.

Though the election is over, Gerstein worries that four more years means Obama has no reason to be concerned about complaints from the press or transparency advocates.

The White House did not immediately respond to request for comment, but there are already some indications that the Obama administration is concerned.

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On Nov. 30, the White House released a new round of visitor access records — a practice that began when Obama first took office, bringing the total number of logs released to more than 2.8 million.

Todd Park, who was named Chief Technology Officer at the White House in March, will likely remain in his position and continue initiatives intended to make government data more available. Among those initiatives are "hackathons," events where developers get together to build new projects using data, which Park also hosted when he was at the Department of Health and Human Services.

But even these hackathons are facing criticism from the watchdog groups, who say the White House has renamed them "convening" instead of "hackathons."

"It's much less threatening for those who are used to keeping data close as opposed to making data public," said Hudson Hollister, executive director of the advocacy group the Data Transparency Coalition.

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook or reach her at eflock@usnews.com.