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Next President Has “Open” Opportunity

The next president has the chance to make his administration the most transparent in history. In our agenda for the next president, we have urged the next administration to reach for this goal. The public has the right to know much of the information collected, disseminated and maintained by the government, but currently there is a presumption to withhold that information. In order to increase accountability, public awareness, and citizen participation the next administration must reverse the trend to withhold information.

The Internet is an ideal tool to increase access to information. Citizens can use it to interact with government agencies, find important documents, and keep tabs on their elected officials. The E-Government Act of 2002 made key government information available on the Internet, and encouraged federal agencies to continue making information available as they maintained a presence on the Internet. Unfortunately, some agencies are not as adept at using these digital tools; that circumstance actually means a great deal of progress that can be made by the next president to encourage the openness and transparency of the federal government.

Lead an administration dedicated to transparency and accountability

Both campaigns have promised more open and accountable government. The next administration has a chance to reverse the troubling movement towards secrecy and concealment of otherwise public information. One of the most important tools in obtaining government information, both for journalists and others, is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. FOIA requests allow citizens to ask the government for information. However, in the last eight years, the statistics on FOIA requests have become more and more troubling, as FOIA requests have been granted at an ever-dropping rate. FOIA request backlogs are becoming longer and longer, and agencies are taking advantage of FOIA exemptions at an alarming rate. The movement towards denying FOIA requests is in no small part due to a memo released in 2001 by John Ashcroft instructing agencies to refuse to release information if at all possible- as opposed to the previous policy, which instructed agencies to disclose information except when there was a “foreseeable harm.”

The first 100 days of the next administration offer a window to issue executive orders, push legislation, and encourage agencies to interact with their constituents openly. Immediately upon taking office, the new president can instruct agencies that it is the government’s responsibility to share information with the public unless a clear FOIA exception applies, reversing the Ashcroft memo, would do a great deal towards opening government information.

Not only should the government grant FOIA requests as openly as possible, they should proactively provide information to constituents by publishing all public data online. You could say that the main job of the federal government is to collect and use information. The taxpayers and citizens of the U.S. have a right to see how non-classified or otherwise sensitive information is being used. By making information proactively available, the new administration can start making more information available immediately. By ensuring that more information is easily found online, we can reduce the load on FOIA officers and streamline the FOIA request process.

Utilize new technology to promote interactive citizen involvement

The candidates in this election have seen the power of Internet technology and have used it to engage citizens in the electoral process. The next president should continue to utilize Web 2.0 technologies like wikis and social networking tools in order to draw citizens in after the election is over. These tools could prove useful in public decision-making processes, using the tools that citizens already use daily to engage them in their government. Citizens could comment on proposed federal regulations and policy initiatives, augmenting the traditional methods for soliciting comments.

Agencies can also release their online resources in open formats that are searchable by major public search engines. This will ensure that information is easy to find, regardless of whether the public knows what agency is responsible for its dissemination, and will ensure that information can be reused in innovative, citizen-powered projects to present the information in new and compelling ways.
The next president should actively encourage agencies to put all of their online resources are made available in open formats and are searchable by major public search engines, allowing the public not only to find the information, but also to reuse it. It is clear that the massive amounts of government information are useful and that the public will use the information that they are given.

The next administration has the ability to reshape the way that government interacts with citizens for the better. No matter who is sworn into office in January, they can take immediate steps to ensure that the government proactively disseminates information and responds favorable to FOIA requests.