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Promise for transparency remains unfulfilled

One way to judge a president’s record is to assess the promises he made when he first took office. That’s what Bloomberg News did with President Obama’s vow to create “an unprecedented level of openness in government” and “act promptly” to make information public.

By that benchmark, Americans aren’t much better off than four years ago.

In June, Bloomberg reporters filed Freedom of Information Act requests with 57 federal agencies. They sought data in a narrow (and not particularly complicated) area: taxpayer-supported travel by Cabinet secretaries and top officials.

The results were dismaying. Just eight of the agencies met the 20-day window for disclosure required by law. Of 20 Cabinet-level agencies, only the Small Business Administration responded within the legal limit.

The records of five other Cabinet-level departments – Commerce, Labor, Treasury, the Office of Budget and Management, and the U.S. trade representative – were turned over to reporters past the deadline.

Fourteen either haven’t fully complied or haven’t responded at all, including the Department of Justice, whose mandate includes enforcing compliance of disclosure laws.

Critics of government opacity, including us, should remember that even in the realm of information, freedom isn’t free. Bringing records management up to 21st century snuff is costly.

The government processed 631,424 FOIA filings last year, with the number of backlogged requests growing 20 percent, from 2010 to 2011, to 83,490. Getting the process to run more smoothly requires labor and technology, both of which, in turn, require money.

But it was the president and his attorney general, Eric Holder, who publicly designated openness and transparency as the guiding lights of this administration. The benchmark of timely disclosure is their own. And unlike other inaugural promises – world peace, say, or campaign finance reform – this one seemed within grasp.

As the survey makes clear, though, the administration has a long way to go. The State Department, for example, said it couldn’t compile travel records for Susan Rice, the envoy to the United Nations, until July 2013, more than a year after the request was made.

The administration acknowledged some of its shortcomings in August with a memo that directs agencies to store all information electronically. That’s a start. Less inspiring is the discreet footnote that agencies have until December 2019 – almost three years after the end of a potential second Obama term – to comply.

The failures are particularly galling because the Obama administration has a successful model of its own to draw from: the process it created for taxpayers to track the $832 billion of spending authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, humbly known as “the stimulus.” The legislation required detailed reporting on how much money had been spent, where it went and how many jobs had been created with the funds.

This information is accessible to the public on a website, Recovery.gov. There’s good reason to believe that the dearth of scandal surrounding this unprecedented federal spending owes much to the deterrent powers of public disclosure. If the administration can manage disclosure for something as complex as the stimulus, it can manage it for the basic functions of the rest of the federal bureaucracy.

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