Could the Trump administration be the most transparent in history?
We don’t know yet, but the simple answer is it should be.
That may come as a surprise to many, and for good reason. President Trump’s campaign and his fledgling administration have been perhaps the least transparent in the post-Watergate Era, and Congress has largely abdicated its duty to conduct meaningful oversight.
In spite of this, advancements in technology and changes to the law have now made it possible to open government files in unprecedented ways – meaning that this administration ought to be the most transparent ever.
The Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1966, and it guarantees our right as citizens to know what the government is doing on our behalf. While officials are allowed to withhold information for reasons such as national security, in general, if you submit a request for public records, the government is supposed to hand them over.
Unfortunately for us as citizens, the government has often seen things differently. When faced with a request for records, officials would often use technicalities in the law to redact as much information as possible, sometimes producing documents with page after page fully blacked out.
Last summer, the law was changed with strong support from Republicans and Democrats, and now that kind of excessive secrecy should be coming to an end. Instead of asking “What can I withhold,” officials are required to ask only “What must I withhold?”
The other piece of the puzzle is technology. Think about what you would do if someone asked you to find all of your old emails on a given topic. It’s the 21st century, so most of us would just type in a few keywords, click “search,” and find what we need in seconds. It’s a pretty straightforward task, but despite the availability of search technology, that’s not how the government has been doing things. Instead, if you asked the government to find emails that mentioned a particular topic (say, “Russia,” “wiretapping,” or “emoluments”) officials frequently printed documents and then visually reviewed them, one by one, them to determine if they were relevant.
This outdated approach has had real consequences for transparency. When a news outlet or private citizen filed a request for public records, the government could take months or even years to turn over basic information. Searching through paper printouts was so difficult and time-consuming that the government often tried to limit the number of places it had to look – leading to a system that was inefficient, inaccurate, and ultimately, not transparent.
That problem should now be solved. As of Dec. 31, 2016, the government is now required to join the modern era for email. For the first time, agencies are now required to manage emails electronically, meaning that emails and attached files should be easily searchable and retrievable. The government has just gone from card catalogues to Google, which should reduce search times from months to minutes.
It is now the Trump administration’s duty to enforce the law. The president ran on a promise of making government more accountable to the American people, and the administration needs to implement these changes right away. According to a recent report from the National Security Archive, 38 out of 99 agencies still haven’t updated their internal rules as required to reflect the new policies. That could mean that officials aren’t being told about the new presumption of disclosure; that agencies may not be applying current law on deadlines or standards; or that agencies aren’t yet using their new technologies.
That isn’t good enough. When members of the news media or general public ask for government records, it is no longer acceptable for them to reply that no information could be found, or that a thorough search would take too long. They have the technology, the law is clear, and the courts are unlikely to believe the same old excuses. 2017 will mark a new era of transparency, whether the government likes it or not.
Austin Ever is the executive director of American Oversight.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.