Opening the info doors

Access to government information is about to get much easier, if the new president’s early actions are any indication.

To the delight of open government advocates, President Barack Obama dedicated some of his first policy documents to those concerns.

The day after his inauguration, Obama signed an executive order imposing rules on presidential record-keeping and one that attempted to close the revolving door through which political appointees move back and forth between government and lobbying jobs. He also signed two open government memorandums and said more formal documents in those areas would be forthcoming.

“We are overjoyed and still stunned, I would say,” said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, a group that has sued the Bush administration over its record-keeping practices and has litigation pending related to some of the many Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests it has filed.

“No president has ever made this an issue that he has spoken to on the first day,” Fuchs said.

Advocates said Obama’s action sent a strong signal that Obama’s team heard and took seriously the suggestions that advocates had given.

The policy documents reflect many of those recommendations.

Obama said “information maintained by the federal government is a national asset” and that the administration would work to disclose information readily in forms that the public can use.

He also called for agencies to make use of collaborative tools to better engage citizens and non-governmental groups.

“All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure,” he said, directing the issuance of new FOIA guidelines to enforce that philosophy.

Patrice McDermott, director of, said it will be interesting to watch how much information agencies make available, how timely and usable its release will be, and how far down the bureaucracy the changes will reach.

In separate news, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs announced that Obama will be able to use a super-secure handheld device to exchange e-mail messages with “senior staff and a small group of personal friends” under the presumption that “they’re all subject to the Presidential Records Act.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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