USEPA To Publish All Official Calendars: Bold New Step or Token Measure?

By David Lyons (Posted: June 5, 2009) 

Both during his campaign and since assuming office, U.S. President Obama has repeatedly emphasized the importance that transparency and accountability play in his governing philosophy. In fact, just a day after the inauguration, the president issued this memo directing federal agencies and departments to ensure that their affairs are “transparent,” “participatory,” and “collaborative.”

But the efforts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to fulfill this pledge raise as many questions as they answer about just what constitutes meaningful access.

Shortly after the release of the president’s memo, the EPA’s new chief administrator, Lisa Jackson, issued similar instructions to agency employees. She reinforced the agency’s commitment to honoring Freedom of Information Act requests and emphasized protections for whistleblowers, but the only new initiative she unveiled was a commitment to publish her public schedule, as well as those of her top deputies.

Some critics, however, have argued that the new disclosure is of little value to the public. When one of the EPA officials responsible for implementing the pledge to publish the calendars asked for suggestions on the best format to do so, some commentators demanded further disclosures.

As Mark Tapscott, an editor of The Washington Examiner, a newspaper, noted in response, “…When government officials routinely include on their online calendars names and titles of all meeting participants, a link to minutes of the meetings and links to copies of all documents considered in the meetings, then we will have a genuinely useful and credible transparency tool.”

So, how far should government officials go in releasing their internal deliberations and documents? At what point does too much disclosure threaten to limit candid discussion between political leaders who fear that off-hand comments might be taken out of context or misinterpreted?

Some guidelines for assessing the value of disclosures might include:

  • the information opens the decision-making processes of public officials and institutions
  • the information is easy to access, to share and to analyze, with public officials and institutions proactively disclosing information
  • the public is encouraged to offer comments, criticism and suggestions