On the verge of a second Obama term, the country is, understandably, looking ahead: What will the economy look like over the next four years? What about healthcare, jobs, the conflict in Afghanistan? But it’s worth stopping for a moment to look back – at the promises the President made when he first took office, and whether or not he’s lived up to his own stated goals.
On the President’s very first full day in office, he issued a memorandum asking federal officials to “usher in a new era of open government,” and make the workings of the government more transparent and accessible to the average citizen. He wrote: “In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government.” Later that day, in an address to the new Cabinet and White House staffers, the President added: “I expect members of my administration not simply to live up to the letter but also the spirit of this law.”
We decided to take a look at how three of the largest and most headline-making federal agencies – the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense – have handled their FOIA requests over the course of President Obama’s first term in office. Has their responsiveness, their processing time changed over the past four years? And what can we gather about the administration’s transparency, based on these changes?
According to a Bloomberg investigation, in 2009, “cabinet agencies employed exemptions 466,402 times, a 50 percent jump from the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency.” The number of exemptions have since declined by nearly a quarter, but are, as Bloomberg notes, “still are above the level seen during the Bush administration.”
In a recent twist, at least 25 federal agencies have been outsourcing parts of the FOIA fulfillment process to private corporations – an arrangement worth over $26 billion in FY2012 alone. Some of the companies aren’t even based in the United States, making them exempt from a number of the FOIA fulfillment guidelines. Yet these contractors are responsible for making crucial decisions like what data to release, what to redact, and when to make it available (or not). This development raises pressing questions about what government transparency really means in the Obama era – questions we hope to start addressing with this story.