Obama government openness pledge a challenge to change federal culture, reward truth-tellers


“My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,”  President Obama said on his first full day in office. Achieving this will require more than a presidential statement.  It will require much stronger protections for public interest truth-tellers and a shake-up of “keep your head down and don’t rock the boat” federal culture. The Make It Safe Coalition has called on the President “to review and resurrect federal positions for Bush administration whistleblowers who lost their jobs because they sought to defend the public.”

“The way to make government accountable is make it transparent so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they’re being made and whether their interests are being well-served,” President Obama said on January 21, 

Joe Davidson’s Federal Diary in the January 22 Washington Post (“New Administration Seems Friendlier to Whistleblowers”) reports:

These words from President Obama yesterday, his first full day in office, are particularly welcome to those who blow the whistle on government waste, fraud and abuse.

They want him to strengthen transparency by making it safer for federal employees and contractors to reveal policies and practices that may run counter to the public interest….

By issuing memos to the heads of executive departments and agencies on the Freedom of Information Act and transparency and open government, the new boss in chief is sending a strong signal to federal employees that his administration places high value on openness and he wants them to do the same….

Davidson quotes Sean Moulton, director of federal information policy at OMB Watch, a nonprofit government-watchdog organization:

For federal employees, that could lead to a change in a culture that says no one was ever promoted for releasing information, but you can get in trouble for doing so.  Trying to change that culture of better safe than sorry…is very difficult….[To turn this federal employee culture upside down] Make it an incentive to be more open, to feel more comfortable that disclosure not only won’t get you in trouble, but it could get you a better performance review.

Davidson notes that Obama is hearing from whistleblower advocates, calling on him to bring back Bush administration whistleblowers who lost their jobs:

Toward that goal of greater openness…the Make It Safe Coalition—50 organizations seeking to protect whistleblower rights—has asked the new administration to consider rehiring whistleblowers who were dismissed under the Bush administration.

In a memo last week to what was then the Obama transition team, the coalition asked the new president to issue an executive order “to review and resurrect federal positions for Bush administration whistleblowers who lost their jobs because they sought to defend the public.”

Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project,* which coordinates the coalition’s work, said the proposed order would help determine “how many professional bodies were buried during the last administration,” then work to get them reinstated.

The Make It Safe Coalition memo, which was written by Devine, also urged Obama to issue a directive saying “there will be zero tolerance for retaliation against those who exercise their duty to disclose” any fraud, waste or abuse they witness.

That would mean, the memo says, that the Obama administration would “hold bureaucratic bullies who enforce secrecy through harassment strictly accountable through disciplinary action” and provide needed training.

*Climate Science Watch is a program of the Government Accountability Project.

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