Yesterday afternoon, POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian — along with OMB Watch Executive Director Gary Bass, OpenTheGovernment.org Director Patrice McDermott, National Security Archive Executive Director Tom Blanton, and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Executive Director Lucy Dalglish — met with President Obama about open government issues. The meeting was originally scheduled to occur during Sunshine Week, but was postponed. Here's Danielle's account of the meeting.
I approached our meeting with President Obama yesterday with trepidation. From my perspective the meeting would have been a dismal failure if my colleagues (OMB Watch Executive Director Gary Bass, OpenTheGovernment.org Director Patrice McDermott, National Security Archive Executive Director Tom Blanton and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Executive Director Lucy Dalglish) and I were simply given a photo op in the oval office as we honored the President for his stated commitment to open government. Our time with the President was expected to be short, and we were warned there is a rule that there be absolutely no "asks" — in other words no lobbying — in the Oval Office. We needed to be very careful with every word, both not to waste time, but also not to violate any ethics rules.
I believe strongly that POGO's effectiveness is enhanced by occasionally wielding a carrot while continuing to hold the proverbial stick in our other hand. With regard to the Obama Administration's progress on open government, there is no doubt we still have a long litany of problems. But if we take for granted a sitting President who has used his bully pulpit to emphasize the need to change the way we think about access to government information, our cause is likely to be forgotten among the many other presidential priorities. And some progress has undeniably been made in the past two years. The meeting was originally scheduled two weeks ago during Sunshine Week, but that meeting was postponed at literally the last minute. Some scoffed that this was evidence of his lack of commitment to the issue. It didn't help that ESPN ran a lengthy segment with the President making his March Madness picks that day.
So...what happened. Yesterday, President Obama opened the door to the Oval Office and ushered us in with a joke about how he hoped we were all going to be listed in the White House visitor logs, which are open to the public (thanks to litigation by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, aka CREW). Both a photographer and a videographer were also in the room. I had expected a more formal "ceremony" with our having to scramble to ensure time to highlight where we thought there were the major issues that needed more significant change. Instead, the entire meeting was informal and the President was clearly engaged.
He began the discussion by thanking us for recognizing his commitment, as well as acknowledging we are probably also there to let him know we aren't satisfied with the pace and scope of change. He reaffirmed what he has said since his first minutes in office: that he believes open government strengthens our democracy.
Gary, OMB Watch's executive director, focused on the places where we have seen real change, including the Open Government Directive, the Executive Orders on Classified National Security and Controlled Unclassified Information, emphasis on affirmative disclosures of government information; and the President's support of reporters' privilege and shield law, as well as whistleblower protections.
Lucy, executive director for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, pointed out that this was the first president in her 30 years of working in this field who had invited open government advocates into the Oval Office. She specifically thanked him for his strong support of a reporters' shield law, which he affirmed he continues to support. Tom, executive director for the National Security Archive, emphasized that when it comes to FOIA reform and implementation we know it isn't just a ship of state, but an entire flotilla including rowboats. And that while there has been notable improvement according to the National Security Archive's survey of agencies, there continues to need be a need for leadership from the top to change cultures across the vast swath of government agencies. He also noted that we all believe the information we want to see is not simply that which is useful for consumers, but also that which holds the government accountable.