Like many in the administration, Beth Noveck’s CV is impressive.
She graduated from Harvard University magna cum laude in 1992, from the University of Innsbruck with a Ph.D. in 1994 and from Yale Law in 1997. She helmed the Institute for Information Law & Policy and the Democracy Design Workshop at New York Law School. She founded Do Tank, which purports to “strengthen the ability of groups to solve problems, make decisions, resolve conflict and govern themselves by designing software and legal code to promote collaboration” with government. She is sandwiched at No. 84 between Kai-Fu Lee, who created China’s Internet, and the Poland government’s Radoslaw Sikorski, foreign minister of the only European Union country that never entered recession, on Foreign Policy magazine’s list of 100 top global thinkers for “demanding open government, then creating it.”
She is a popular and stalwart purveyor of creative, tech-centric projects to increase the proletariat’s participation in government. Which is probably why Barack Obama hired her to head his Open Government Initiative, whose website states:
“For too long, the American people have experienced a culture of secrecy in Washington, where information is locked up, taxpayer dollars disappear without a trace, and lobbyists wield undue influence.”
This was a clear dig at the Bush administration, which deserved every bit of the mountains of criticism it got for making secret the way his government – most notably, his military and intelligence operations – did business. Everyone in 2008 was really, really excited about this. Journalists forgot their place, quietly put away their notepads and clapped from behind press ropes at Obama campaign stumps. Finally, a politician was willing give us all the information we needed to become informed about and participate meaningfully in our democracy. No more would corporate interests live in the back pockets of the men and women who decided what was done with the little green sheets of paper they pulled from ours.
On his first day in office, Obama distributed a memorandum to his department and agency heads: “The Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.” In other words, if the government is not able to determine if information is covered under federal sunshine rules, they are to release it. It was ostensibly a new era in federal government transparency.
Beth Noveck led that effort, and was lauded for it. And she has been awarded with a glamorous spotlight: She has advanced her efforts before other Western democracies looking to do the same things. She was very recently lured away from the Obama administration with a high-profile post doing the same thing for the United Kingdom’s governing bodies. She has even given a TED Talk.
But perhaps most impressive about Beth Noveck is the dynamism of the idea she promotes: that a truly free modern society contributes and partakes of its political commonwealth proactively, like the Founders intended. It’s not a simple modus in which we go to the polling station every once in a given time lapse and opine on a piece of paper about where you think your government should head. It’s about using the cornucopia of communication platforms that has proliferated in the most recent decade under the advent of the Interwebz to influence policymaking for the betterment of the common woman and man. There would be rapport, nuance and direction for the political dialogue. Instead of the government communicating with its people in reports and the people communicating with the government by writing angry letters to representatives in Congress, the people could shape government directly. In a way, they could wield the same influence enjoyed by lobbyists who invade the capital every session to felate lawmakers they spent increasingly opaque monies getting elected in exchange for, say, policy that allows their companies to dump poison into public drinking water supplies.
This is a grand idea – it is a way to redemocratize a government that has become less by the people as corporations have found ever new and ever nastier ways to govern from the dark chambers of lobbying conversations. Brilliant.
“When we start by teaching young people we live in a writable society where we have power to change communities, that’s when we really put ourselves on the pathway to the open government revolution,” Noveck eloquently informed a TED audience.
Acting toward these goals, she has been the subject of shining features in newspapers, including The New York Times and The Huffington Post, for creating an unprecedented crowdsourcing network meant to gather as many ideas and as much information as possible from civic-minded people on how to improve government. And, though there is much work to be done, it has worked; people even told Obama to release the reams of paperwork hidden in secret federal libraries over the years on government knowledge of alien life and UFOs. She opened up the National Archives and Health and Human Services.
The Obama administration is now open; just ask Beth Noveck.
But there’s a conspicuous problem with this thesis: It’s absolutely untrue. Read the news, and you’ll find out one of the most open parts of the Obama administration is its hostility toward transparency. By nearly every metric, the Obama administration has failed to live up to its promise, and more: it has actively eschewed its duty to be open. During its first year, the Obama administration deployed its power to exempt information from the FOIA 466,402 times, half again as many as the Bush administration did the year prior.
But while it would make sense to consider compliance with FOIA the most salient way to measure whether a government is being honest with its constituencies, the Obama administration has gone above and beyond in its remarkably public campaign against open government. Obama himself announced in a press conference – to journalists, in case you were confused – that he was exerting executive privilege over documents on the handling of the Fast and Furious debacle. His top cop has aggressively pursued any person he could prove willingly provided information that would make the administration look bad to the press. Obama has been cryptic in television interviews about his “Kill List,” the National Defense Authorization Act, and American military efforts in the Middle East. The Obama administration has Army intelligence analyst Pfc. Bradley Manning imprisoned on charges that he leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks, a controversial online digest of international government secrets. From May 2010 until pretrial hearings began in November 2012, Manning, a gay man newspapers have reported to be very troubled, was kept under lock and key without trial.
Which leads me to perhaps the starkest example that Noveck’s department and efforts are for naught: Working alongside many other agencies from many countries, the American government has Julian Assange cornered in London’s Ecuadorian embassy for releasing Manning’s documents, among others, on Wikileaks, which he runs. Assange claims the Obama administration is participating in an international witch-hunt against his transparent government activism. Assange is a polarizing figure in the journalism community. But there’s no way to deny that his efforts have, more than any open government campaign ordered by its own structures, brought to light information pertinent to the public interest. This is important because, in that way, Wikileaks embodies Noveck’s crusade, and on a highly visible, international platform. But in her address at a TED conference – an organization that has also hosted Assange as an expert on government transparency – Noveck didn’t even mention Wikileaks.
She instead dodges the issue by saying a transparent government – a government that discloses information – in itself is not a recipe for fluid democracy.
“Simply throwing data over the transom doesn’t change how government works. It doesn’t do anything to get anyone to do anything,” she said.
She never says government shouldn’t disclose; she simply says that’s not all that needs to happen. Which is true. An engaged public is essential for any modern society. But this argument places the burden of the work for public interaction with government on the public, which, contrary to her narrative, needs accurate data before it can assess a starting point in that conversation. This is one of the causes of our diseased public dialogue – when you have no actual information to work with, you turn to Fox News.
The terms Noveck uses to define the openness of American government are these: When she arrived at the White House, her initiative didn’t have any resources. Now, it has many, which have percolated all departments in the Obama Executive. The departments and their leaders Tweet now. But these analytics don’t apply in America because, as we have seen, government in America is missing the most important element: its willingness to share information with the public. Without the government first sharing information with us, that dynamism becomes lethargy. Americans – especially those of my generation, which is notorious for its apathy in demanding better government – retreat to living rooms bereft of literature and replete with elaborate video game consoles. The idea of the writable society stagnates in parents’ basements. Noveck headed a brand new wing of government, tasked with sharing itself with the American public. It never did that. It was as do-nothing as Congress has become.
Beth Noveck’s words in speeches are as inspiring as those of her former boss during his first campaign for president.
“The last thing, the most important thing for us to do is demand this revolution. We don’t have words really to describe it yet. Equality, fairness in the traditional sense, are not great terms yet. They’re not fun or exciting enough to get us engaged in this tremendous opportunity that awaits us. If we want to see the hopeful, exciting kinds of innovations in clean energy and education and development, if we want to see those adopted and scaled, we must all participate. Open up institutions and let the nutrients flow throughout our culture to create open institutions, a stronger democracy, a better tomorrow.”
Ms. Noveck, we’ve demanded open government. Please deliver.