U.S. GOVERNANCE PRACTICES
Government for the people, by the people is one ideal that has been reduced to nothing but wishful thinking as one government after another chose to have lower public impact on its governance practices. With the triumph and entrance of President Obama in the white house, a change was expected. His very election was a symbol of major change in people's thinking and it was hoped that by his selection, things would change in the way governments conduct themselves. Obama had also promised transparency and an open government, practices that were highly desirable and could allow people to have more interaction with the government.
The very first day President Obama took charge of his office, he started taking measures to ensure that governance practices were totally transparent. For this reason he introduced changed in Freedom of Information Act policies so new websites like recovery.gov could be created. Obama team was proud of these changes as they could stand starkly in contrast with Bush's policy of secrecy. But how much transparency do we really need, how much can the President promise in the long run and is President Obama already making changes to his stance on transparency. Will his governance practices change over the time and how will the change or lack of it affect public interaction and impact? These are some very relevant questions that arise when we discuss recent changes in governance practices in the U.S.
President George Bush left behind more than just a major economic crisis. He also left behind a legacy of secrecy in governance practices which had raised serious concerns and outcry. People had complained on several occasions that his government is working behind a veil and hence public was deliberately being kept in the dark about government's actions and decisions. Law professor David Vladeck, said, "George W. Bush will go down in the annals of history as 'The Secrecy President'" (Committee on Government Reform Minority Staff 2004). Nothing changed however during his eight years in the office. However presidential candidate Obama took notice and decided to make "Change" his presidential campaign trademark. He pledged to introduce changes in the way governments used to run their business and promised to make governance practices more transparency. As a candidate, Obama pledged to "create a transparent and connected democracy" (Obama 2007). And as the President, he signed a memorandum "to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government" (Obama 2009a). He made sure that this commitment was fulfilled and some major steps were taken in first 100 days to gain people's confidence in his promises.
Even before President Obama had taken over, there was a clear need to steer away from the secrecy practices of the last government as people were looking for some change. Several interest groups and organizations had developed their own views on how governance practices must become more open and transparent and what changes would be desired. One such taskforce was OMB Watch which advocated change in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) so some government records could become public. Obama took action when he became the President and some changes were made to the Freedom of information Act. He spoke against Bush's frequent use of "a legal tool known as the 'state secrets' privilege more than any other previous administration to get cases thrown out of civil court" (Obama 2008). Obama pledged to reverse the course and preferred "use [of] cutting-edge technologies to & #8230; creat[e] a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America's citizens" (Obama 2007). In addition to that, President Obama also stated that "the Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears" (Obama 2009).
This clearly showed his commitment to a change in governance practices. Internet was used as a valuable tool for enhancing public interaction with the government and keeping people informed. Websites such as recovery.gov and healthreform.gov were created so people could learn about economic changes as well as have a better idea of how the government plans to streamline the healthcare system. The website also contain blogs by government officials and people were allowed to comment which gave public some voice in the decision making process.
The questions that arise now are simple: will these changes stay for a long time, will changes be made to them and how will the new governance practices affect people? It must be made clear here that transparency is not desired for its own sake. People were looking for change in governance practices because they wanted a fairer and more just government that would allow people some influence over decision making. Has Obama's transparency measures allowed people a chance to voice their opinions and impact decision making? This is a relevant question and one that must be answered. Over the last few months, we have seen people having more power than they had during Bush administration (Greenwald, 2009). When healthcare reforms were planned, President Obama debated on them for weeks. These reforms are still being planned but the form has already changed somewhat indicating that public had a hand in this. Instead of just passing the bill and signing it into a law, the healthcare reforms were debated for weeks and weeks on end. People were given a chance to voice their opinions in town hall meetings and this allowed them greater influence on the decisions which could impact their lives. This is exactly what people had wanted and asked for. But while on the surface it appears that people have had a say, there is a concern that the dominant voice may not be of the general public but instead of those power pressure groups that do not want change. It must be said then that regardless of how open or transparent the government becomes, there is always a risk that some dominant individuals and groups would drown the voice of the common man. And too much transparency may even clash with best interests of America and FOIA may be denied because "agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by one of the statutory exemptions" from open access to information. (Holder 2009).
Thus while the recent changes in governance practices may have given public some power, the section of the public that attains the most power may not be the one composed of common men. Despite President Obama's clear understanding of how common man is being sacrificed on the altar of healthcare, there is now a shift in his stance on healthcare reforms which indicates that he is succumbing to the demands of pressure groups and powerful insurance companies. Where does this leave the ordinary man?
For this reason, it is important to understand that transparency is not desired for its own sake. It is needed so that people can participate in the decision making process. But in order for the ordinary man to have his voice heard, something needs to be done to control the more dominant voices of powerful individuals and organizations because as long as they stay in power, ordinary man will not be able to get this voice across.
The government thus needs to understand why is it pursuing transparency? The government is not certain of why open government is desired and what should the main objective of openness. It is being guided by polls that indicate that more than 80% Americans call for more openness in governance practices. (Lake Research
Partners/Topos Partnership 2009). Transparency has become a cherished commodity but the purpose of its attainment is not clear to anyone, not even the government. Transparency and changes in governance practices are needed so that people can interact with the government and have an influence on policymaking. (Stiglitz 2003). This type of transparency serves dual purposes. On the one hand, it allows people to voice their opinion and hence impact the decision making process, and on the other, it lowers the risks of blatant mistakes on part of the government as were seen during Bush era. Thus while government does need to pursue more openness, it doesn't need to go overboard because too much transparency or transparency without a purpose can actually do more damage than good.
With changes in the governance practices, people have been given a voice. There is no doubt about it but who are these people whose voices are being heard the most? We need to answer this question. Is it really the ordinary public or is it pressure groups working for those powerful organizations that had always been part of the problem and never part of the solution.
Secondly with greater openness there is always a chance that it might hinder healthy debate required for good policymaking. Some people might shy away from asking important questions that may appear dumb to others but can actually help in polishing the rough edges of public policy (Sunstein 2003). Obama is thus already seen shrinking…