Here is some news to cheer supporters of open government: The feds made considerable progress last year in paring what had been a chronic backlog of public disclosure requests.
Consider it an upside – perhaps the only upside – of having a dwindling number of watchdogs covering federal agencies. As fewer reporters file new Freedom of Information Act requests , federal workers have more time to process old ones.
But as of last fall, 77,377 requests were still pending, according to a new report from OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of more than 70 open-government advocates. The oldest request – a petition to the Department of Defense – dated from 1992.
The coalition’s Secrecy Report Card also found a decline of new national security secrets. But the reflex to hide information remains strong: Fewer pages were declassified governmentwide in 2009.
A couple of additional indicators of the federal government’s spotty commitment to transparency:
• An increasing number of federal advisory committee meetings are being held behind closed doors. More than 73 percent of the time, advisory committees created with the intention of providing the federal government scientific and technical advice free from the influence of special interests met in secret.
• The gap between the amount spent on classifying documents and declassifying documents is huge and growing. The government spent $196 maintaining the secrets already on the books for every $1 it spent declassifying documents.
The coalition warned that its report, which covers the last three months of the Bush presidency and the first nine months of President Obama’s term, should not be read as a definitive statement on trends in the new administration.
The group mentions several promising developments, including the creation of a National Declassification Center and office to to mediate disputes between records requesters and federal agencies.
Changing cultures and practices in anything as large as the federal government is never easy or fast. On the same day that OpenTheGovernment announced its findings, another good-government group announced that the federal government’s attempt to disclose spending data is so riddled with errors as to make it nearly useless.
The Sunlight Foundation found that two-thirds of the fiscal 2009 spending data reported to USASpending.gov was flawed or late.
Clearly, the federal government has far to go. Obama himself set the bar high by coming to office promising a historic level of openness and accountability. His administration will have to continue to improve on its record if he is to come close to meeting that commitment.