December 7th, 2009
Workshop on transparency closed to the public
By David Cuillier
Here’s another strike against the Obama administration’s pledge for openness. A workshop Monday for federal FOIA officers and other employees by the new Office of Government Information Services (the federal ombudsman’s office) was conducted in secret, according to an Associated Press story.
The Department of Justice’s director of information policy reportedly said the FOIA workshop was private because they wanted to allow people to talk candidly. New ombudsman Miriam Nisbet said it was closed to make sure there was room for government employees. Bad move.
Granted, the workshop’s PowerPoint slides (posted online by Patrice McDermott from openthegovernment.org) focus on problems requesters have in getting documents and how FOIA officers can help smooth the way. The program looks good. I didn’t see anything in there on how to keep things secret, stall or increase agency revenues through copy fees.
The problem, however, with keeping the workshop secret is that it gives the appearance of hiding. The public is left wondering what is being said behind closed doors – what advice is being given to employees. Say a government employee complains about ignorant or bothersome requesters. That’s to be expected. Say a government employee asks how he or she can increase revenues through increased copy fees. I wouldn’t be surprised. Say an employee says there is too much openness and not enough secrecy. I’ve heard it at these kinds of workshops. No big whoop. That’s part of the dialogue – a dialogue that should be conducted openly.
This action caused much more stir than they would have received from a few comments at an open workshop. It caused mistrust in the new ombudsman’s office, and chuckles in the access community. C’mon, folks!