Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Government Transparency and Participatory Democracy Highlights from the Obama Administration

 The shift from mass communication to networked communication has changed culture by increasing the need for the appearance of federal government transparency.  As Web 2.0 technologies and social media technologies increase in prevalence, it is nearly impossible for the government not to utilize these new tools.  Several presidential administrations have made significant efforts to improve the ease of transparency of government.  President Lyndon B. Johnson oversaw the Freedom of Information Act adopted in 1966 (5 USC § 552).  President Bill Clinton led the “Reinventing Government Initiative,” which included such activities as “Access America” that “laid out a series of actions to serve the public on its own terms and give agencies tools to operate an electronic government” (Kamensky, 2001).

On the other hand, President  George W. Bush was touted as one of the most secretive presidential administrations, reportedly denying Freedom of Information Act requests (see Jaeger & Bertot 2010; Coglianese, 2009).  As a response to previous presidential actions combined with the growth of Web 2.0 technology led to efforts by President Barack Obama’s administration to increase the federal government’s visibility (Bertot et al., 2010, p. 54).  In 2010 in a speech before the United Nations, President Obama said:
The common thread of progress is the principle that government is accountable to its citizens. . . . In all parts of the world, we see the promise of innovation to make government more open and accountable. . . . . We must build on that progress. And when we gather back here next year, we should bring specific commitments to promote transparency; to fight corruption; to energize civic engagement; to leverage new technologies so that we strengthen the foundations of freedom in our own countries, while living up to the ideals that can light the world (as qtd. in White House, 2010, p. 31).

Historically, transparency and public participation have been important factors in the United States’ government.  Jaeger and Bertot (2010) wrote that, “[m]any of the constitutional founders of the United States, including James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and George Mason, placed great value on the necessity of the new government to foster a culture of open official publishing and information by the government, distributing these publications for easy duplication in regional newspapers, along with their collection in other public institutions at the local level” (p. 371). Jaeger and Bertot argued that this transparency of government leads to a “participatory democracy” (p. 371). Similarly, Sylvia Kierkegaard (2009) claimed that transparency “serves to keep government honest” (as qtd. in Jaeger and Bertot, 2010, p. 372).
Early communication theorists speculated on the political impact of growing communication technology.  Marshall McLuhan wrote in his 1952 article “Technology and Political Change” that “[t]he technologically-determined format of the press has had revolutionary political consequences” (as qtd. in Peters & Simonson, 2005, p. 340).  McLuhan noted that “writing… was a political revolution” because it changed the “nature of social communication and control” (as qtd. in Peters & Simonson, 2005, p. 339).  According to McLuhan’s theory, as writing and mass media changed the course of politics, we will likely see networked communication change politics today.  Similarly, in 1916, John Dewey declared that “[s]ociety not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but it may be fairly said to exist in transmission, in communication” (p. 13).  Today as the new media tools develop, society can seemingly exist through the technologies available according to Dewey. And as society changes through technology, so has the United States’ government.
Before the federal government began using web technologies, it was much harder to participate in government.  Bertot et al. (2010) wrote that “social media technologies take away the traditional boundaries of time and space for government processes” such as physically attending meetings or hearings or participating in input-seeking activities by the government (p. 56). Additionally, the internet decreased the cost of transparency for citizens and government (Jaeger & Bertot, 2010, p. 372). Web 2.0 and social media technologies can foster an interactive atmosphere between government and citizens by allowing citizens to virtually participate in government. Darin Barney (2008) wrote that “[t]he potential for improved access to increase volumes of better information to move greater numbers of people to more intensive and consistent political engagement has been routinely held out as one of the key democratic promises of emerging media technologies” (p. 93).
Given the increasing technological tools and growing focus on transparency, the Obama Administration implemented several efforts to increase transparency and public participation in government.  For example, to increase the participatory atmosphere in government, the Obama Administration issued Executive Order 13563, which promotes public participation.  Specifically Section 2, titled Public Participation, “directs agencies to promote an ‘open exchange of information and perspectives’ among all stakeholders during the regulatory process, and to provide the public with a ‘meaningful opportunity’ to comment on proposed rules” (White House, 2010, p.31). The order goes on to direct agencies to seek stakeholder input, noting that agencies should “seek the views of those likely to be affected by a proposed rule, including like beneficiaries and those who would be subject to a rule” (p. 31).  By issuing this Executive Order, the Obama Administration is clearly, publically and legally, placing emphasis on transparency, information sharing, and participation. 

Further efforts to increase transparency in government included the creation of a multitude of websites.  As one example, in 2009, “the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act … required the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board to create a website ‘to foster greater accountability and transparency in the use of funds made available in this Act’” (  President Obama claimed that this new website, was intended to ensure “…that every American can find out how and where their money is being spent” (Coglianese, 2009, p. 6).  Use of the website has been promising according to its own website statistics, which demonstrate several million visits through the life of the site to date (see Figures 1 and 2).
Fig. 1. Visits to by state between Sept. 2009 and March 2012 (from:

Fig. 2. Website Traffic to April 2011 – March 2012 (

            However, is not the Obama Administration’s only effort to increase transparency through technology.  On President Obama’s first day of presidency, he signed a memo to guide his administration by three overarching values of “transparency, participation, and collaboration (Coglainese, 2009, p. 533). Table 1, below, highlights several of the Obama Administration’s website efforts. Many of these websites were created under the direction of the “Open Government Directive” in which agencies were asked to publish their information online and share useful information rather than waiting for a request under the Freedom of Information Act (White House, p. 14).  

Table 1. Selected websites created since the Obama Administration
An interactive website providing 2010 census data available in 60 different languages and interactive features (White House, p. 17).
Department of the Interior
A primary goal of CommerceConnect is to provide a virtual “one-stop shop” for information, counseling, and access to the breadth of services that help a business transform itself into a viable and competitive enterprise” (
Department of Commerce
“This platform now provides the public with access to hundreds of thousands of agency data sets. These data can be downloaded and manipulated by anyone—accessible to policy advocates, academic researchers, data developers, and entrepreneurs” (White House, p. 6).
Department of State
"…brings records and data from across the federal government to one central location, making it easier for citizens to hold public officials accountable. is available to the public and allows anyone to access and search the records of seven different databases” (
Department of State
Freedom of Information Act  (FOIA) Dashboard
“an interactive Web site containing comprehensive data on FOIA compliance by 92 Federal agencies and enable the public to “shine a light” on the government’s compliance with the FOIA” (
Department of Justice
“…an interactive site that includes Web streaming of health-care reform forums, blog postings by government officials, and a comment function that allows the public to share stories and ideas about health care” (Coglianese, 2009, p. 535).
Department of Health & Human Services
“This new site will serve as the Federal Government’s focal point for information sharing and collaboration with external partners on human rights issues” (
Department of State
Open Energy Information
“…a participatory web platform that opens energy data to the public.  The data and tools housed on this free, editable, and evolving wiki-platform will spur the adoption of clean energy technologies across the country and around the world” (
Department of Energy
This website is required by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act and was created to provide the public with information about how their tax dollars are spent (
Department of Treasury

            In addition to websites, the Obama Administration has utilized various social media tools include Facebook, Twitter, wikis, blogs, Google+, and other social networking sites (see Jaeger & Bertot, 2010). Coglainese (2009) writes that the Obama Administration works to use the Internet more “interactively” (p. 535). The White House official Twitter feed has over 2.8 million followers and has “tweeted” nearly 6,000 times. The White House official Facebook page has over 1.3 million “likes.”

Early theorists speculated about the access of information and political impact.  There was a key debate among several theorists about information availability and its political and societal impact. Walter Lippmann argued that too much information can be overwhelming for voters and that government decision making should best be left to the experts (Peters & Simonson, 2004, p. 37).  Specifically, Lippmann writes, “…we shall misunderstand the need seriously if we imagine that the purpose of the publication can possibly be the informing of every voter….  For the man does not live who can read all the report that drift across his doorstep or all the dispatches in the newspaper” (Peters & Simonson, 2005, p. 39). 
Charles Horton Cooley felt oppositely from Lippmann.  Cooley expressed that political life can be modified by communications media availability (Peters & Simonson, 2005, p. 21).  Cooley argues that as media tools make information more available to persons and groups, that people have a greater awareness (p. 22-23).  Like Cooley, John Dewey theorized that a better informed public could adequately form and voice public opinion (Crick, 2009, p. 487). Marshall McLuhan, famous for the saying “the medium is the message,” argued that the method or mode of communication is part of what is being said (Peters & Simonson, 2005, p. 339).  Considering the great amount of information available to citizens and the Web 2.0 methods by which the information is released, it seems as if the government is encouraging a more transparent and participatory atmosphere.  
This debate over information availability carries over into the networked communication era.  Like Lippmann, Schudson (2003) writes that “whether digital media will make democracy easier or harder to practice will depend on what visions and versions of democracy we have in mind” (p. 49). He argues that the imagination of democracy under emerging democracy has only been expressed in terms of “the informed citizen” (Barney, 2008, p.  92).  Schudson writes that:
To imagine that the potential of the computer age for democracy likes in the accessibly of information to individual citizens and voters who will be moved by the millions to petition and to vote more wisely than ever before is to imagine what will not be – and it is to exercise a very narrow democratic imagination in the first place” (as qtd. in Barney, p. 92-93). 

While President Obama’s transparency initiatives have yet to be proven to increase the perceived transparency of and the public participation in government, it is not doubt that the Obama Administration has placed heavy emphasis on transparency in government and information sharing. The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to increase public participation through various social media tools and website availability.  Even based on the data available, of the United States’ entire population of over 313 million, only a small amount (less than 1.0%) is represented as participating online (see Figures 3 and 4). estimates that the views on for the last three months were 9.92 per one million users and views on for the last three months were 11.5 per one million users.
Figure 3. Social Media Subscribers as a percentage of the US Population*

*Estimated US Population at time of data accessed from 313,410,916

Figure 4.0 Total Social Media Subscribers

             A 2008 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project examined the importance of emerging media on citizens’ encounters with electoral politics.  They found that people sought out information on using internet tools, but did not engage as much as originally predicted.  The study found that “only 10 percent of Americans used …social networking sites to access political information” with the most frequent activity “being investigation of political preferences by ‘friends’” (Barney, 2008, p. 94).  Like Lippmann suggests, Barney (2008) argues that this increasing information availability can make  people “immobilized because they are informed, and thereby relieved of the need to judge and to act” (p. 96).  
Cass Sunstein (2001), a supporter of information availability, still presents that when given a multitude of choices for information that citizens will react by filtering to get only the information that they want (p. 11) and that this can have “potentially destructive effects of intense market pressures on both culture and government” (p. 14).  Sunstein argues that part of this destructive effect is that people will filter out opinions and information that are opposed to their own opinions, which can lead to “excessive confidence” and “extremism” (p. 14).  In this sense, companies will be able to shift attention to and from topics they like, which can affect government positively or negatively depending on the issue (Sunstein, 2001, p. 18).
            There are certainly arguments about the benefits and difficulties with the great amount of information produced by the federal government.  The Obama Administration has made priority areas for transparency, information sharing, and public participation, and has utilized Web 2.0 tools to achieve these priorities.  The increasing amount of information resources can certainly quell arguments that the government is trying to keep anything from view.  On the other hand, we have yet to know about the influence of this new information made available through these new tools and whether it will help create a more participatory democracy or whether it will just lead to more information overload.  


Barney, D. (2008). Politics and emerging media: The revenge of publicity. Global Medial Journal – Canadian Edition, 1 (1), 89 – 106.

Bertot, J.C., Jaeger, P.T., Munson, S., and Glaisyer, T. (2010). Social media technology and government transparency.  Computer 43 (11), 53-59. Accessed 20 April 2012 from Search query: and

Coglainese, C. (2009). The transparency president? The Obama administration and open government. Governance 22 (4), 529-544.

Crick, N. (2009).  The search for a purveyor of news: the Dewey/Lippmannn debate in an internet age. Critical Studies in Media Communication 26 (5), p. 480-497.

Jaeger, P.T. and Bertot, J.C. (2010). Transparency and technological change: Ensuring equal and sustained public access to government information. Government Information Quarterly 27, 371 – 376.

Kamensky, J. (2001). A brief history of Vice President Al Gore’s National Partnership for Reinventing government during the Administration of President Bill Clinton.  National Partnership for Reinventing Government.  Retrieved from: (2012). Retrieved from:

Schudson, M. (2003). Click here for democracy: A history and critique of an information-based model of citizenship. Democracy and New Media, 49-59.

Sunstein, C. (2001).  The daily me. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Retreived from:

United States Census Bureau (2012). Retrieved from

United States White House (2010). The Obama Administration’s commitment to an open government: A status report. Retreived from

White House official twitter account. Retrieved 12 April 2012 from:!/whitehouse.

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