The Obama administration has stressed openess and transparency in government. But Lester Graham reports, government employees, scientists and journalists say that transparency is not as clear as they’d like.
The Obama administration has stressed openness and transparency in government. But Lester Graham reports, government employees, scientists and journalists say that transparency is not as clear as they’d like:
Federal government websites have started featuring plans for transparency. Go to the Environmental Protection Agency site and you’ll find the “Open Government Plan 1.0.” The Food and Drug Administration site has a “transparency tool.” You can click on the Department of Energy’s “open” icon. Nearly every federal agency has a similar openess and transparency plan.
But inside the agencies you’ll hear a different story.
James Hansen is a climate scientist in NASA’s Goddard Space Center. He was famously muzzled by the Bush administration because Hansen’s science on climate change did not match the Bush White House policy on climate change. But James Hansen says censoring science and controlling the message or restricting access is not unique to the Bush White House.
“It’s really both parties feel they control the offices of public affairs in the science agencies. And, they think that the news that comes out of the offices of public affairs should be supportive of the administration’s policies.”
It seems to be a carry-over from political campaigns. During the campaign, handlers work keep everyone “on message” to make there are no embarrasing statements. Then, they bring that same mentality with them when they’re rewarded with jobs in the government.
One career press officer who did not want to be identified told me about “exteme frustration” among his colleagues. Recently there’s been a quote “tightening of the screws” by political appointees overseeing the press officers. Instead of the press officers doing their job, helping journalists get in contact with the bureaucrats, and scientists within an agency… they’re inhibited, restricted by political appointees.
Journalists have been trying to work around the obstacles thrown up by the political appointees.
Christy George is a reporter and the President of The Society of Environmental Journalists. Full disclosure here– I am a member of the SEJ. She says the journalists have been fighting this battle against many presidential administrations.
“Politicians love to control their message.”
But with all the promises of transparency in government, some reporters thought things would change.
“When President Obama came in and pledged to greater transparency and open government, we thought that was going to be a good thing and dramatically different from the Bush administration. And it’s not dramatically different in certain agencies. It seems like things are just largely continuing on.”
Christy George is quick to note, the Environmental Protection Agency has addressed some of the journalists’ issues. But, there are still problems of getting access to key scientists and others who contribute to how laws are enforced.
“It becomes harder to get information out of government when people are trying to manage information.”
Darrell West is the vice president and director of Governance Studies at the think tank, the Brookings Institution. He says when political appointees work to control the message, it’s not helpful to anyone.
And West says some of this transparency that agencies are trumpeting is really a way to avoid the scrutiny of journalists and activists and present information directly to the public through the internet.
“There is a risk that the flow of information is going to be more restricted and people are going to be told only what the government wants them to hear.”
And if you’re only hearing what the government wants you to hear… there’s a significant risk you’re not going to hear all you need to know.
For the Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.