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Friday, November 16, 2012

Government Transparency and Secrecy: An Examination of Meaning and Its Use in the Executive Branch

Wendy Ginsberg
Analyst in American National Government

Maeve P. Carey
Analyst in Government Organization and Management

L. Elaine Halchin
Specialist in American National Government

Natalie Keegan
Analyst in American Federalism and Emergency Management Policy

From the beginnings of the American federal government, Congress has required executive branch agencies to release or otherwise make available government information and records. Some scholars and statesmen, including James Madison, thought access to information— commonly referred to in contemporary vernacular as “transparency”—was an essential cornerstone of democratic governance. Today, the federal government attempts to balance access to information with the need to protect certain information (including national security information and trade secrets) in order to achieve transparency. As a consequence, access and protection are often in tension with one another.

Congress has the authority to determine what information can and should be publicly available as well as what should be protected. Congressional powers that may be used to address federal transparency include the powers to legislate, hold hearings, issue subpoenas, and control the federal budget. Statutes that grant access to government information include the Federal Register Act, the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Among the laws enacted to protect information are the Privacy Act and FOIA. Agencies also use security classifications, which are governed largely by executive orders, to protect certain records from public release. Records may be protected for national security purposes, personal privacy concerns, or other reasons.

The Obama Administration has undertaken its own transparency initiative, known as the Open Government Initiative, to make executive branch agencies more transparent, publicly accessible, and collaborative than they have historically been. Watchdog organizations have offered mixed reviews of the initiative’s ability to promote and institute government transparency.

Transparency may be defined as the disclosure of government information and its use by the public. Transparency, under this definition, requires a public that can access, understand, and use the information it receives from the federal government. This report first assesses the meaning of transparency and discusses its scholarly and practical definitions. It also provides an analysis of the concept of transparency, with a focus on federal government transparency in the executive branch.

This report subsequently examines the statutes, initiatives, requirements, and other actions that make information more available to the public or protect it from public release. It also examines transparency and secrecy from the standpoint of how the public accesses government information, and whether the release of government data and information may make operation of the federal government more or, counter-intuitively, less transparent. Finally, this report analyzes whether existing transparency initiatives are effective in reaching their stated goals.

Date of Report: November 8, 2012
Number of Pages: 39
Order Number: R42817
Price: $29.95

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