Barack Obama has promised the most transparent administration ever. Is that a good thing?

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Nov. 12 2008 8:15 PM

The TMI Presidency

How much transparency do we really want from Obama?

John Podesta and Josh Bolten. Click image to expand.
John Podesta and Josh Bolten

During a presidential campaign, there's no such thing as over-sharing. Barack Obama promised to run the most transparent White House in history—disclosing donations, shunning lobbyists, and broadcasting important meetings on C-SPAN. Transition captain John Podesta reiterated the point Tuesday when he said Obama's would be "the most open and transparent transition in history."

But once a candidate becomes president, he faces a transparency trade-off: More transparency may make the government more accountable, because the public can learn the rationale behind policy. But less transparency may allow for more wide-ranging and honest deliberations, which can lead to better policy.

So what would a radically transparent administration look like? And what liabilities would come with increased transparency? With the help of a new report by OMBWatch, as well as the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics, we've put together a list of ways the Obama administration can promote transparency. We've also listed some potential drawbacks.

  1. Spotlight the bailout. If the purpose of transparency is to increase faith in government, there's no better place to start than the Treasury. Obama could set special disclosure standards for not just how the $700 billion is being spent but who is being hired, where they have worked in the past, and any potential conflicts of interest.
    Drawbacks: It's embarrassing. The fact is, the Treasury is hiring many of the bankers and traders who got us here in the first place. This isn't because the feds are in the pocket of Wall Street—it's because they are Wall Street. It's the same paradox that bedevils bans on lobbyists being involved in issues they worked on: The people with vested interests on an issue often know the most about it.
  2. Force lobbyists to disclose everything. The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (PDF) now requires lobbyists to file quarterly reports that reveal who they lobby and on what issues. If Obama wanted to up the ante, he'd make lobbyists file monthly reports that detail which meetings took place when. They would also have to report which pieces of legislation they pushed for or against, as well as specific earmark requests they made. Obama would also make lobbyists release guest lists for the parties they throw for members of Congress and their staffs. Likewise, Obama would continue his policy of refusing to hire federally registered lobbyists and prohibiting anyone who lobbied in the recent past from advising on the policy area in which they lobbied.
    Drawbacks: If you believe that ethics legislation is a slowly tightening noose around the neck of free speech, then all this disclosure feels like a nuisance. As Hillary Clinton said, lobbyists are people, too. As for keeping lobbyists at bay, the fact is that lobbyists are some of the most knowledgeable people in Washington on policy matters. No doubt there are other qualified candidates out there without the shady ties—they're just harder to find.
  3. Broadcast Cabinet meetings. It's possible Obama was exaggerating when he suggested broadcasting top-level meetings online. But doing so would give Americans more insight into the deliberative process than ever before. And it would force Cabinet secretaries to hone their ideas beforehand and defend their views eloquently. (Besides, it would be undeniably good television.)
    Drawbacks: Cabinet secretaries are unelected and, theoretically at least, focused on policy. Broadcasting Cabinet meetings would encourage political grandstanding and would hamper actual decision-making. (Have you seen British parliament on the BBC?) Plus, there would have to be a seven-second delay to bleep out all the classified information.
  4. Publicize the president's schedule. If members of Congress have to report their meetings with influence-seekers, why shouldn't the president? Lobbyists aren't the only ones trying to peddle their wares. (Technically, they're just the ones who spend at least 20 percent of their time doing it.) Corporate chief executives, heads of state, NGO presidents, and others who pass through the West Wing also have agendas, and full transparency would require that we know when they have the president's ear. No one's asking for a live blog. Personal visits could be off-limits. But a record of who gets official face-time with the president would be a useful, and mostly harmless, influence-meter.
    Drawbacks: Safety, for one. Rule No. 1 of post-9/11 presidential security is: Never broadcast the commander in chief's schedule. Another, admittedly lesser problem, is jealousy. If the CEO of Apple learned that the CEO of Microsoft got a face-to-face meeting with Obama, he might demand one, too.
  5. Get rid of "pseudo" classifications.Right now the intelligence classification system is a joke. In 2007 there were "107 unique markings and more than 131 different labeling or handling processes and procedures for SBU [sensitive but unclassified] information," according to one government official. These included such labels as "for official use only" and "law enforcement sensitive." President Bush issued a directive to consolidate the labels in May, but he didn't try to make them less common. To increase transparency, Obama could eliminate the gray area altogether and force officials to decide whether information is classified or not.
    Drawbacks: In the real world, it's never all-or-nothing. Some documents are meant for all staff members, some are restricted to the top 20 people, and some are "For Your Eyes Only." Agencies need to be able to distinguish among levels of classification. Sure, "pseudo" classifications have gotten out of hand, especially in the Bush administration's culture of secrecy. But they do serve a purpose.
  6. Make all filings electronic. Senators still file financial-disclosure reports on paper, which can take weeks to process. Electronic filings make the data easier to process, organize, and search. It also helps create metadata—dates, tags, and other categories that help people sort and draw meaning from the data itself. For example, a senator can release thousands of pages of bank statements. But without metadata, it's nearly impossible to analyze them. Not to mention, it saves the state thousands of man-hours and millions of sheets of paper.
    Drawbacks: None—unless you're a senator with something to hide.
  7. Highlight earmarks. It's impossible to ban earmarks completely. But as John McCain would say, make their authors famous. Set up a system under which legislation is published online prior to voting and last-minute changes are automatically highlighted. Better yet, track changes so the public knows which lawmaker added what.
    Drawbacks: Earmarks serve a useful purpose, helping to attract backing for a bill that a member may not otherwise support. (Of course, there are other ways to compromise.) At the same time, lawmakers might hesitate to make necessary but controversial changes if everyone knows who made them.

Is there such a thing as too much information? Yes—but only if there's no way of processing it. The key to increasing transparency, therefore, is to allow people to interpret what they're seeing. That means not just more documents but better databases, more navigable interfaces, and more visual aids to help people analyze information. If you've got that, there's no such thing as over-sharing.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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