Groups give Obama “A” for openness despite barriers between journalists, federal experts

A coalition of reform groups, including Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters and U.S. PIRG, recently issued “A Report Card from Reform Groups on the Obama Administration’s Executive Branch Lobbying, Ethics and Transparency Reforms in 2009.” The administration gets high marks in a number of categories, including an “A” for open government. The report card, however, seems to overlook an issue of particular interest to health care journalists.

The groups praise the administration’s “unprecedented steps to implement Executive Branch transparency,” steps they said include the disclosure of official visits to the White House, the publication of stimulus and other government contracts online and the administration’s “presumption of disclosure” approach to FOIA requests. They also note a few shortcomings, including the administration’s reliance on Internet-only avenues of disclosure and time lags in the availability of some information.

According to AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee, there’s another shortcoming those reformers missed in their report card: Restricted access to federal employees. AHCJ has already requested that the administration reverse inherited policies that allow federal public information officers to restrict the access the public has to federal experts, and while committee representatives praised the administration’s move toward a more open government, they don’t think this particular obstructionist policy should be ignored.

By way of explanation, here’s an excerpt from a letter sent by Right to Known Committee Chair Felice Freyer and AHCJ President Charles Ornstein to the groups responsible for the report card.

… we wanted to make you aware of another issue the administration has yet to address: the continuing difficulty that journalists face in speaking with federal employees. Under policies that have intensified over the past 15 years, public information officers often block or delay our access to the people who have the facts needed to inform the public.

This is not just a matter of reporters looking to make their jobs easier. It’s a question of our ability to tell the public what federal employees are doing with taxpayers’ money and to report on important research and public health issues. Many times staff members are eager to talk with us, but they require permission from public information officers. The PIOs sometimes simply say “no.” Or they never call back. Or they tell the reporter to wait for the official news release. Many insist on listening in on interviews, ensuring that staff will stick to the “official story.”

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