The dream of an open government has yet to be realized, according to an editorial by the Federal Times. The article, which was published earlier this month, describes an attempt by one Federal Times reporter to acquire contact information for all Department Of Homeland Security (DHS) spokespersons.
Currently all media inquiries to DHS must go through a single email address. To make contacting DHS spokespersons easier and faster, the Federal Times writer contacted DHS about getting a list of names and phone numbers of all spokespersons in the federal agency. Surprisingly and perplexingly, DHS refused. At this point most people would shake their heads and give up, but not this reporter. They responded to the DHS refusal by filing a Freedom of Information Act request for the contact information, quite an extraordinary amount of effort for a list of names and phone numbers. Eventually DHS did provide a 58-page directory of its public affairs staff, but “with all work phone numbers and email addresses blacked out.” DHS justified the decision by arguing that the release of those telephone numbers would cause an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
In the editorial, Federal Times argues that this sort of information denial is “limiting the public’s access, undercuts accountability, and deepens the divide between the government and the public it is supposed to serve” and in direct contradiction to President Obama’s Open Government Initiative, whose stated aim includes “tracking how government uses the money with which the people have entrusted it” and “empowering the public – through greater openness.” The initiative, a critical part of the President’s reelection campaign platform, was outlined in a memorandum he signed on his first day in office. In the memorandum, the President states that his administration “will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use”. The Federal Times is right to point out that this statement is seemingly at extreme odds with the DHS’s refusal to disclose contact information of spokespersons.
If the goal of an open government is ever to be realized, agencies must buy into the notion that expanding their access and exposure will improve their capacity to engage with the general public and fulfill their mandates. Until then, according to the Federal Times, open government is still only a dream.
Mike Jones is a researcher, writer, and analyst on national and international security. He lives in the DC area.