open government

Obama's supposed transparency again belied by hush-hush press conference rules at EPA

Osha Gray Davidson's post on the Society of Environmental Journalists' listserv was at least one funny thing that could be written about the very unfunny way U.S. Environmental Protection Agency squelched open and honest communication with the public today:

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of  openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”
 

-- Senior administration official.

The quote, of course, is from President Obama, who issued the seemingly sweeping statement of support for government transparency shortly after taking office. As we've pointed out before, though, at least one agency is clearly failing to live up to this mandate: The U.S. EPA.

Today the agency, for the second time in three months, held a news conference on a major announcement and ordered reporters not to reveal the names of EPA officials addressing the public through the news media.

What is the meaning of this? Who are they afraid of?

The first incident happened when U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson held a news conference upon the release of the Obama administration's proposed annual budget in early February. Reporters who phoned in, their phones on mute so they could not object, were told that any EPA assistant administrators or others who spoke were "on background," meaning reporters were free to quote these officials, but not to identify them.Journalists were told if they stayed on the call or at the news conference they were agreeing to these rules. Is this what democracy looks like?

Happy Sunshine Week! Here are investigative resources for journalists and other citizens

Even though I've been reporting for decades, I always learn something useful during Sunshine Week, the subject of all my posts this week. Well, this year was no different.

One thing I hadn't known about before was the Citizen Journalist's Guide to Open Government, put out by the Knight Citizen News Network.

And, with permission of the Society of Environmental Journalists, I'm reproducing here SEJer Joe Davis's "10 Key Open-Gov Resources for Enviornmental Journalists": 

1. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Publishes a suite of authoritative booklets on journalists' rights of access to information — and practical how-to's on using them most effectively. They offer free legal advice for journos.

2. The Sunlight Foundation. Incites and supports use of digital tools to overcome government efforts to hide the truth about its occasionally sleazy behavior. Tools for all!

3. Society of Professional Journalists' Freedom of Information Committee. Watchdogs press freedom and info-access issues in most of the 50 states. Who's active in your state?

4. National Freedom of Information Coalition. Builds networks of reporters and grass-roots FOI activists in most states. Now has Knight money to help fund FOI court cases.

5. Freedom Forum/First Amendment Center. Funded via the Gannett legacy, the First Amendment Center offers numerous programs and information sources.

Scientists: Obama administration muzzles us as much as George W. Bush's did

It was a year ago this month that President Obama issued a memo giving underlings three months to draw up policies “to guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch.” But, as New Scientist blogger Peter Alhous put it the other day

“We're still waiting, and the Union of Concerned Scientists is ... well, concerned about the delay.”

Now comes a new survey of scientists by researchers from George Mason University’s Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, or SKAPP. It  says the Obama administration is – this seems hard to believe – not doing any better than the previous Bush administration on the squelching-science score.

 Researchers interviewed 37 federal scientists at 13 federal agencies in 2008, when George W. in front of a flag was the picture gracing the walls on federal offices. They returned in the summer of 2009 to the same researchers. And?

 "Most subjects did not view conditions at their agencies as having improved noticeably since the change in administration."

Recall that the Bush administration had a terrible record on this score, which we covered at Dateline Earth.

Had trouble getting info from the government? Tell it to the Datamine project for Sunshine Week

I'd planned for this third of my Sunshine Week posts to write about examples of folks who have had trouble getting the government to comply with the Freedom of Information Act. Public Employees for Environmental responsibility, for example, has a doozy.

I’d also planned to dip into some analysis of the situation from the 30,000-foot view, such as the AP's look at the Obama administration’s increased use of FOIA exemptions by Sharon Theimer.

But today I heard about this cool project in which the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation are asking citizens to contribute to their Datamine project for Sunshine Week. So instead of a longer post, here’s the text of a post I made today to the Society of Environmental Journalists’ SEJ-Talk listserv:

Folks – let me encourage you to take part in this interesting project by the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation to find out about how citizens are doing when they try to get information from the government: http://bit.ly/c4FsRa .

The questions they’re asking citizens – and journalists are citizens, too – to answer are:

• Has the government denied your attempt to FOIA certain information?
• Are you aware of any government reports or data that are unnecessarily hidden from public view?
• Have you successfully obtained government data, only to find it difficult or impractical to use in today’s electronic environment?

It seems like a cool project. I plan to respond. It’s timed, of course, for Sunshine Week. So reply in the next few days if you can.

Slow government action under Freedom of Information Act = a less robust democracy

I was driving the other day when my celphone started vibrating. I pulled it from my pocket. It was a call from a northern Virginia number I didn't recognize. I dutifully pulled over and answered. It was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calling back about a Freedom of Information Act request -- one that I filed nearly three months earlier, back in the first days of winter. Note that spring starts this Saturday. The phone call I took as I sat by the side of the road in my two-seater Honda was the first time I had spoken with an EPA official about the request. The story for which I was gathering information when I filed the request ran Jan. 12.

Now, at the time I filed the request, I was desperate for information about what the EPA had to say about a class of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. I was putting together a story on new research that suggests dangerously high concentrations of these PAH chemicals may be coming off parking lots with coal-tar sealants.

Why was I desperate? Because, as I explained yesterday in kicking off this series of Sunshine Week posts, the EPA had simply refused to have a meaningful conversation about what was -- and still is -- emerging as a major potential threat to public health. (It's also a threat that has not been written about very much, btw. Our story for MSNBC was far and away the highest profile the issue has achieved to date.)

The caller from an EPA northern Virginia office was Crystal Samuels. She wanted to know if I still wanted that information. In her introduction, she was apologetic about the time lapse, telling me:

Obama administration pounds chest about transparency, but will have to better than this

The other day the Obama administration's "Chief Information Officer" -- or CIO... isn't that clever? -- was in Seattle decrying a "culture of faceless unaccountability" in government. His boast:

"This is part of the President's agenda: to make sure we’re hardwiring transparency into the culture of the federal government."

What a bunch of horse patootie.

At least that's the way Vivek Kundra's chest-beating looks from the trenches, for me and for other journalists trying to get information from the federal government, and particularly from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Kundra's statement in front of a geek-heavy audience in Seattle is worth examining now because today kicks off Sunshine Week, the annual exercise in which open-government activists yap it up with fellow citizens about the importance of our democratic government being truly transparent with citizens. As a journalist, a fair amount of what I do is find out what government is up to, and tell my fellow citizens.

Now,  Kundra's statement about Obama's agenda may be correct. But I'm here to tell you, friends, that the agenda ain't trickling down to the trenches.

Want proof? In this post today I'll detail how the EPA simply failed to engage with us for a recent InvestigateWest story of great nationwide importance.

Obama administration tries to sell itself as more open and transparent; don't believe it

Friends, it's Sunshine Week, the annual push by those who would democratize our government by opening up our government to make our case. So Dateline Earth is taking a one-week hiatus while I populate InvestigateWest's From The Field blog with tales of how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is failing to engage with me and other journalists; how the EPA routinely drags out simple requests for public records; how the Obama administration is going to court to fight numerous requests for public records; and how the Obama administration is no better than George W. Bush's when it comes to squelching government scientists. Finally, courtesy of the Society of Environmental Journalists, we'll provide a list of important information sources for citizens, citizen journalists and yes even full-time journalists to use in prying information out of the government. It's all over at our From The Field blog.

-- Robert McClure