As a state Senator in Illinois and as a U.S. Senator, Barack Obama built a reputation as a process reformer. He worked hard and had some notable success on ethics and lobbying reform. He also advocated good ideas on campaign and election reform, and brought more transparency to government, including his achievement — with unlikely Senate ally Tom Coburn (Okla.), a conservative Republican — of getting disclosure posted online of all entities receiving federal funds.
[IMGCAP(1)]As a presidential candidate, Obama made it clear that reform to make government in Washington, D.C., work better and be more accountable remained a key part of his agenda. Ten months into the Obama presidency, there have been impressive successes on the government-reform front, along with many areas yet to be explored, and at least one place where the failure to move quickly has seriously hampered the Obama presidency and the implementation of good policy.
Let me start with some of the good news. On transparency, the Obama administration has done a lot of admirable things, most recently by making the White House visitor logs available. The big advance here, though, is extending the idea of putting massive amounts of information about government — what it does, who does it, where the money is going and who is getting it and spending it — on user-friendly Web sites. One of the big advances came in February with Recovery.gov, which allows anybody to track all the spending under the stimulus package enacted earlier this year. Go to the Web site if you haven’t — it is a model of clean design and accessibility.
After that, go to FinancialStability.gov for a lode of information about mortgage refinancing, executive compensation and other news and data about the financial sector. Continue your Web strolling with Data.gov to get access in easy steps to a massive amount of information in federal databases, and with USAspending.gov to get to the IT dashboard and look at the status of federal information technology initiatives and programs. And go to BroadbandUSA.gov to learn about broadband access under the stimulus act and to apply for grants.
Most of these sites enable people to access and utilize information. Obama has also created and expedited a series of ways for Americans to talk back to government through online forums and town hall meetings, watch webcasts of meetings and forums, give ideas and feedback — and in many cases, to fill out forms online. Some of the better sites here include HealthReform.gov and the FCC’s Broadband.gov, along with DefenseSolutions.gov, to enable defense mavens, including contractors, entrepreneurs and analysts to offer ideas to the Defense Department.
Some of the innovations have come within government, to enable agencies to better communicate with one another and to avoid the kind of “stovepiping— that leads to narrow and uninformed decisions and to the temptation to hide information from others inside the government. Obama also launched an initiative to get the best ideas from government employees on how to improve efficiency, reduce waste and perform better inside their agencies, with winners to be recognized by the president at the White House. It didn’t take long for more than 35,000 submissions to arrive.
Of course, Obama was not the first to open government information on the Web. Intellipedia, which I have written about before as a terrific innovation in intelligence analysis, was a product of the Bush years. A lot of credit for pathbreaking here actually goes to former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his allies in 1995 for the creation of Thomas.gov, which opened up Congress to the public via the Internet. (Thomas remains invaluable to Congress-watchers and to average citizens, but the site needs updating — it is like a Model T compared to the newer executive sites mentioned above.)
Given that every presidency has a tendency to try to hide some information and spin results, this White House has been exemplary in trying to use modern technology to make government transparent, which can help keep government accountable.
It is a model that Congress needs to follow with more fealty. The pledge to put bills online at least 72 hours before they are considered on the floor can be tough to fulfill when time pressures to act are great, and when there is a fear that putting hundreds or thousands of pages of a major bill online in advance can lead to selective quotes and disinformation campaigns. But the 72-hour principle is a cornerstone of accountability and transparency in Congress, and it needs to be recognized and followed as such.
There is a long time to go in the Obama presidency — time to expand on these gains and move into other areas that urgently need attention, including structuring an executive branch shaped largely in the early and mid-20th century, reforming our still-broken election system to head off the possibility of another debacle like November 2000, creating a new model for campaign financing that fits the information age and the urge by the current Supreme Court to take a meat-ax to a hundred years of settled campaign finance law, and maybe even enacting reforms to make sure that the presidency, Congress and Supreme Court can be replenished quickly in the event of a terrorist attack on Washington.
With so many other demands, I will cut the administration some slack in these areas. But no slack is deserved in the nomination and confirmation process for executive positions — an area that neither Obama nor the Senate has handled with any determination or innovation. It is embarrassing that the Obama administration is falling behind the record of both the Bush and Clinton administrations in getting key positions filled. That we do not have a director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (the key agency to implement any health care reforms) named, much less in place, is a disgrace. That hundreds of key positions in critical agencies such as Treasury and State are not filled this far into a presidency is truly bad for governance. Kudos on transparency. Brickbats on appointments.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.