Commentary: Pressure must stay on Obama to deliver on transparency

So maybe Hillary Clinton was right.

The celestial choirs aren't singing, and everyone isn't magically doing the right thing, and the world isn't suddenly perfect.

President Barack Obama has, in fact, showed more willingness than his immediate predecessor to shine a light on the workings of government, Patrice McDermott, director of watchdog coalition openthegovernment.org, told journalists last Friday in Arlington.

Administration officials have listened to open-government advocates. Obama has issued presidential memorandums on transparency, freedom of information, presidential records and scientific integrity, all designed to foster an attitude of more access rather than more secrecy.

"What a change after eight years in the wilderness," said McDermott, keynote speaker for SPJ Fort Worth's annual First Amendment Awards and Scholarship Dinner.

A week ago, the Justice Department released controversial legal memos issued during the Bush administration authorizing CIA interrogators to use extreme techniques on terrorism suspects.

But there's more to open government than letting the public inspect the foundations of incendiary policies since repudiated.

And McDermott predicted "the same hard slog" to make sure that the reality matches the comforting rhetoric about "transparent, participatory and collaborative" government.

Part of the task will be overcoming institutional history and inertia: from the founding of the nation, government has preferred to operate as much as possible out of the glare of public scrutiny. That tendency gets exacerbated by war and times of national distress.

Justified concerns about national security after the 9-11 terrorist attacks ended up being the rationale for unjustified secrecy. The Bush folks overclassified documents, lost e-mails they should have saved, encouraged agencies to deny open records requests and, apparently, didn't do enough to improve the information systems they left for the next team.

"The technology to provide access is old and often held together with gum and paper clips, the personnel to provide the information are missing, and there is little training in the agencies on all the various laws that apply to government information," McDermott said.

"Old computers and older software. Kludgy systems. The government has not only not kept up with the private sector, they have in many agencies – and the White House, apparently – fallen way behind. It is not clear where the billions of dollars that the government spends on technology is going. To contractors, maybe?"

According to one report I read, even when agencies develop rich Web sites, they don't properly use key words so the information can pop up in search engines. How are people supposed to find it?

The media-savvy Obama administration has promised to not just bring information closer to the public but to get the public into the decision-making. It has hired a former Google executive as "director of citizen participation."

But a data.gov Web site still says "coming soon."

Watchdog groups aren’t waiting. They're soliciting ideas about making better information available in user-friendly formats.

They're linking to important resources for keeping track of what's being done in our name on our dime – or billion dollars, as the case may be. For instance, www.bailoutwatch.net compiles news, reports, hearing information and more about the bank bailout, better known as TARP, for Troubled Asset Relief Program. That's how I learned about today's hearing at which the TARP special inspector general, Neil Barofsky, will discuss his quarterly report before Congress' Joint Economic Committee.

Government data isn't just about keeping up with the "real" money. And it isn't just for the scientist studying the nation's food system or the pharmaceutical lobbyist tracking FDA drug approvals.

It's for someone who's concerned about dangerous toys, who wants to know which broadcasters got fined for inappropriate TV programming, who wants to avoid shysters hawking bogus hair-growth products, who needs information about grants the local member of Congress secured for the district.

This administration has set high standards and must know lots of people are watching, and closely.

"This administration – which is doing good things – will have to be held accountable for its great rhetoric as it plays out in its policy," McDermott said. "For that, we are going to all have to stay attentive and engaged."