In the first week of the new Obama administration, I saw several excellent indicators of a new approach to governing, policy making, and accountability that will have direct and long-term benefits for environmental protection efforts.
First, President Obama issued a Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies to more vigorously implement the letter and the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act. I could go on and on about the importance of open and accessible government in general and compliance with the Freedom of Information in particular for ensuring that government does its job, which includes enforcing environmental laws. (When law students begin working with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, one of the first skills they learn is using and enforcing FOIA to keep government accountable to the public.) But I can’t say it any better than President Obama did himself in his memo to the heads of federal agencies:
A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government. At the heart of that commitment is the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and the citizenry alike.
The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. 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. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.
It's noteworthy that this memo on FOIA was one of Obama's first acts as President. Open government is the foundation for good government, from which future policy success can come. If government is open, it will often make the right decision on any given environmental issue.
Obama’s commitment to open and accountable government was echoed by his new EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson, in her first memo to EPA employees:
EPA’s actions must be transparent. In 1983, EPA Administrator Ruckelshaus promised that EPA would operate “in a fishbowl” and “will attempt to communicate with everyone from the environmentalists to those we regulate, and we will do so as openly as possible.” I embrace this philosophy. Public trust in the Agency demands that we reach out to all stakeholders fairly and impartially, that we consider the views and data presented carefully and objectively, and that we fully disclose the information that forms the bases for our decisions. I pledge that we will carry out the work of the Agency in public view so that the door is open to all interested parties and that there is no doubt why we are acting and how we arrived at our decisions.
EPA Administrator Jackson’s memo also laid out three core values that President Obama expects the EPA to uphold in fulfilling its mission:
- “Science must be the backbone for EPA programs.”
- While Congress gives the EPA discretion to exercise its policy judgment, “policy decisions should not be disguised as scientific findings.”
- “EPA must follow the rule of law.”
If the EPA Administrator stays true to these simple values, she’ll earn the trust and respect of environmentalists, business, and the public.