The Limits Of Transparency

Obama opens the White House to the public’s ideas. Sort of | “It’s still the broadcast model — officials talking and people listening”

Elizabeth Dwoskin


President Obama likes to say his administration is the most open and transparent in history. On the White House website, he pledges to give citizens an “unprecedented level” of access to information and says agencies will “offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their government with the benefits of their collective expertise.”

The president’s efforts to make people feel they’re as important in helping him govern as they were in helping him get elected are evident in a new video on the site, titled Be a Part of the Next Four Years. It shows Obama learning to tweet, hosting Google+ Hangouts with ordinary folks, and cold-calling surprised citizens (who happen to have film crews in their homes when the phone rings) to thank them for their ideas. “One of my priorities as president is opening the White House to the American people,” Obama says on the video.

Earnest as he may be about creating an open atmosphere, something’s missing: actual openness. Obama hasn’t been any more inclusive or transparent than his predecessors. In 2009 the new president commanded all federal agencies to hasten the release of official documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Two-thirds of agencies have ignored that order, according to a study by the National Security Archive, a government watchdog. The administration announced with great fanfare that it would release the names of White House visitors, but it’s done so only sporadically. The president hasn’t disclosed the amounts corporate donors gave to fund the inaugural celebration. And his national security team is taking heat from Congress over its secretive policy of attacking American terrorism suspects overseas with drones. Federal agencies are not “fulfilling the president’s promise of an open and transparent government,” Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who heads the Senate committee overseeing the administration’s handling of public information, complained at a December hearing.

No president wants the same type of engagement with his supporters after the election as he did before: Campaigning would be impossible without the direct participation of millions of clamoring voters, but governing is impossible with it. “Between power being concentrated with a few people and direct democracy, there’s no perfect formula to move between those two poles,” says John Wonderlich, policy director of the Sunlight Foundation. “We’re all trying to figure out what that should look like.” Obama has tried to have it both ways, keeping up the inclusive language of the campaign without making government much more accessible to the public. “They campaigned on transparency. They’ve been a disaster for transparency,” says Clay Shirky, a New York University professor who writes about social movements. “They were nowhere near as radical in their thinking about the way they talked to citizens vs. the way they talked to voters.”

Take the White House website called We the People: Your Voice in Our Government. Anyone can create a petition on the site demanding the administration act on an issue important to her. If enough people sign the petition within 30 days, the White House promises to post a response. Macon Phillips, a former Obama campaign strategist whose title is White House Director of New Media, runs the website and created the petitions. They “institutionalize a right to command the government’s attention,” he says by e-mail.

At first, the White House required 5,000 signatures to get a response. But within a week, Phillips was flooded with 7,800 petitions. He raised the bar to 25,000 signatures. In January, he raised it again. It now takes 100,000 signers to trigger an answer from the White House. In all, people have started more than 145,000 petitions. Some are jokes — one that got a lot of attention last year demanded the government begin construction of a Death Star — but thousands of others have asked the White House to address serious issues: the federal minimum wage, gun laws, immigration.

The White House assigns administration officials to answer petitions that reach the signature threshold; there have been 98 so far. Typically, the answers are a page long, with lots of policy details and links to government documents. In response to a petition asking the U.S. to digitize all public records, David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, wrote that the government was already trying to do so through its Citizen Archivist project. At least 11 petitions asking the government to legalize or loosen restrictions on marijuana have attracted more than 200,000 signatures. Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, wrote a seven-paragraph explanation of the president’s marijuana policy, with links to National Institutes of Health research on pot’s addictive properties.

Of course, the purpose of a petition isn’t just to get an answer but to effect change. The White House won’t say whether it’s changed any policy in response to a We the People request. “Sort of a subjective question,” says spokesman Matt Lehrich by e-mail. “I don’t have a figure on that.” The administration has made policy changes after petitions were filed — it strengthened oversight of puppy mills, proposed a regulation to grant work permits for the spouses of people approved for H1-B visas, and enacted student loan forgiveness — but it hasn’t explicitly said the petitions were the reason. The closest it’s come: releasing the White House beer recipe in September — even before the petition calling for the list of ingredients had reached the threshold. “Without any further ado, America, this one’s for you,” wrote the White House assistant chef.

“It’s still the broadcast model — officials talking and people listening,” says Zeynep Tufekci, a social media expert at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. “The president has all these legislative agendas, on gun control, on immigration, that require broad public deliberation. Instead of creating large-scale meaningful interaction, it’s the press release in a new format.”

Phillips says that misses the point. He insists even the Death Star petition was important because it increased the public’s engagement with the government. The official response to the petition by Paul Shawcross, chief of the Science and Space Branch at the Office of Management and Budget, was hilarious: “The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We’re working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.” It went viral and generated lots of clicks on the White House site. Visitors were invited to sign up for NASA e-mails alerting them when the International Space Station passed over where they live. “Now there are more kids who, whenever a space station is above, go outside and look up,” says Phillips. “This is a chance to get this relevant information in front of people who care.”

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the administration’s efforts are a step in the right direction. But he says they also reveal the stark “disparity between 21st century citizens who have all sorts of ways to make their voices heard,” and Washington, which thinks it can still dictate the terms of debate. “The government has to figure out how to take this very closed process and open it to participation,” Zuckerman says, “or we’re going to lose even more public confidence than we already have.”

The bottom line The White House’s We the People website, which lets anyone petition the president, has generated more than 145,000 petitions.


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