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The last four years have revealed that when the foundations of our democracy are under attack, an open government is more than an abstract principle—it is a structural necessity. The public needs complete, accurate, and timely information to hold government officials accountable and to enable the public’s full participation. Yet too many of the systems established to bring transparency to government have proven to have serious, if not fatal, flaws. The COVID-19 pandemic and the failure of agencies across the government to respond to public records requests for key data and health and safety information exposed the degree to which the Freedom of Information Act is broken. Extreme government secrecy has put a wealth of data, documents, decisions, and essential government information beyond the public’s reach, often putting civil rights and civil liberties at risk. Antiquated technology and the lack of uniform data protocols have left us in the dark. The occupant of the White House in January faces the daunting task of not only fixing all this, but also going further to make our government truly open and accountable to the public.
Toward that end, both the message and the medium are critical to restoring and reinforcing mechanisms for holding officials accountable. Most critically, the president must express a commitment to bringing the greatest level of transparency to all aspects of the government, and direct all federal employees to embrace transparency as a core value.
The president should follow up this message with a series of short- and long-term steps that place responsibility for bringing a new level of transparency in key agencies. Those steps must include mechanisms for the public to access information, including through the Freedom of Information Act and agency proactive disclosures. As part of an effort to address systemic racial inequality, the administration must bring a greater level of transparency to how law enforcement and immigration authorities function. To counter the problem of over-classification, the administration must review and revise its classification policies and procedures and open up to public scrutiny documents concerning a range of issues from the use of lethal force overseas to classified national security spending. The administration must improve data quality and usability. The administration must commit to adequately funding agency Freedom of Information Act processes and efforts to improve technology government-wide. Perhaps most essential to all these efforts, the administration must address recordkeeping problems at agencies and the White House to ensure full compliance with statutory obligations. This is not an exhaustive list, but it illustrates the depth of the problem and the need for a complete overhaul of the mechanisms for and policies governing an open government.