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Intermission at USTR’s Transparency Theater

The recent FOIA debacle at the Office of the US Trade Representative is a text-book example of “transparency theater,” a luscious term coined by John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation to describe the comedy of anti-openness and transparency missteps in the first weeks of the Obama Administration.

USTR’s recent denial of an FOIA request for documents regarding a highly anticipated trade negotiation on “national security grounds” raised hackles in BlogNation and launched 10,000 (give or take a thousand) tweets.

It appears, however, that someone inside the White House–if not the President, himself–is jacked in to the strum und drang of the electronic Metaclass because there’s been a “come to Jesus” meeting at USTR that has resulted in a thorough review of its polices regarding transparency.

The folks at Knowledge Ecology International chronicle this abrupt–but welcome–turn around in their blog, Knowledge Ecology Notes:

On Thursday, President Obama’s trade officials met with several civil society groups and promised a thorough review of the USTR policies regarding transparency. The review is expected to be completed within a few months. The process will include a meeting within a month to discuss initial specific proposals for openness and transparency. Citizens and NGOs are encouraged to think about the specific areas where openness and transparency can be enhanced and how. Among the specific proposals that will be evaluated are the following at the request of KEI:

1. Disclosure of all negotiating texts and policy papers
2. Disclosure of all meeting agenda (as soon as they are available), and participant lists, extending to plurilateral, regional and bilateral negotiations policies that are common at multilateral institutions.
3. Accreditation of civil society NGOs to attend meetings, including in plurilateral, regional and bilateral negotiations, as is common at multilateral institutions.
4. Public consultations and comment periods, including those that accept comments to web based forums.

Obama rode into office on a populist wave of hope and change he carved from the crass routines associated with presidential election cycles, only to watch his newly minted Administration stumble over the very issues he promised to promote. So the turn of events at USTR, coupled with the AG’s memo revamping FOIA procedures, are, to me, well, comforting. Because it says to me “he gets it,” and keeps at it, despite the early knocks on his running of the government and federal agency efforts that sputter and fail to ignite despite his best attempts to breath life into them. He’s not begging off these “marginal” issues and hiding behind efforts to ensure the U.S. economy doesn’t buckle like a downed bull elephant. And that, for me, keeps hope alive.

That attention is seen in USTR’s promise to review it’s internal procedures. KEI writes:

“The review offers the possibility of more transformative changes, including pro-active measures to enhance transparency, covering all aspects of USTR operations, including multilateral, plurilateral, regional, bilateral and unilateral trade policies and negotiations.”

Intermission is over; we hope there’s no second act to USTR’s debut-farewell performance at the transparency theater.