WASHINGTON — The Obama administration conducted a workshop on government openness for federal employees behind closed doors Monday, a private training session for freedom-of-information officials to learn about a new U.S. office that settle disputes between the bureaucracy and the public.
The decision to preclude the public and the media from attending Monday's workshop left open government advocates scratching their heads, given President Barack Obama's campaign promise to make his administration the most transparent ever. A reporter for The Associated Press was turned away from the door Monday.
"If they're getting marching orders, why shouldn't the public be there?" said Jeff Stachewicz, founder of Washington-based FOIA Group Inc., which files hundreds of requests every month across the government on behalf of companies, law firms and news organizations.
The workshop was organized by the Justice Department's Office of Information Policy for agency public liaisons, who serve as ombudsmen and who "play a vital role in the administration of the FOIA at each agency," the government said. It was to set procedures for them to work with the new U.S. Office of Government Information Services, set up to resolve disputes over information requests between citizens and the government.
The Justice Department immediately released presentation materials from the workshop. They noted that the principal concern among agencies and people who ask for information is how long the government takes to hand over materials, a process that frequently stretches into months or even years. Federal workers were told to encourage people to limit the breadth of their requests to get information more quickly, or ask people to give the government enough time to conduct a full search for the information.
"We'd like to know, when they're training agencies, are they telling them the same thing they're saying in public, that they're committed to making the Freedom of Information Act work well and make sure that agencies are releasing information whenever possible while protecting important issues like individual privacy and national security," said Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, of which The Associated Press is a member.
The official in charge at the conference, Melanie Ann Pustay, offered these reasons to explain why it was closed: She wanted government employees to be able to speak candidly, and the conference would be in an auditorium at the Commerce Department, where she said a government ID was required to be admitted.
The AP and other news organizations routinely enter government buildings to cover the government.
Pustay said she planned to say the same things at the workshop that she would say publicly, and said she is looking for ways to improve how the government responds to information requests, which costs roughly $400 million each year.
As Obama's first year in office ends, his record on issues surrounding the Freedom of Information Act — one of the principle mechanisms that citizens use to request information — is uneven so far.
"The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears," Obama told government offices on his first full day as president.
Obama scored points on his pledge by requiring the release of detailed information about $787 billion in economic stimulus spending. It's now available on a Web site, www.recovery.gov. Other notable disclosures include waivers that the White House has granted from Obama's conflict-of-interest rules and reports detailing Obama's and top appointees' personal finances.
Yet on some important issues, his administration produced information only after government watchdogs and reporters spent weeks or months pressing, in some cases suing.
Those include what cars people were buying using the $3 billion Cash for Clunkers program (it turned out the most frequent trades involved pickups for pickups with only slightly better gas mileage); how many times airplanes have collided with birds (a lot); whether lobbyists and donors meet with the Obama White House (they do); rules about the interrogation of terror suspects (the FBI and CIA disagreed over what was permitted); and who was speaking in private with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (he has close relationships with a cadre of Wall Street executives whose multibillion-dollar companies survived the economic crisis with his help).
Just last week, a State Department deputy assistant secretary, Llewellyn Hedgbeth, said at a public conference that "as much as we want to promote transparency," her agency will work just as hard to protect classified materials or information that would put the United States in a bad light.
Associated Press Writer Ted Bridis contributed to this report.