Thursday, September 3, 2009

Transparency at 400 Maryland Ave.

Kudos to the Obama administration for a little more transparency in government. An administration is as much its people as its publicly stated policies. The people became far more identifiable because of a change made this year.

The public has long been able to access the identities of the senior department and agency appointees, but now can learn about a range of other less visible, but often no less influential, appointees. On the Department of Education's Web site, Secretary Arne Duncan has made available a list of all political appointees. The Senate-confirmed appointees are listed, much as in the past, but are joined by many who are certainly political neophytes.

Ohioans might recognize Will Jawando, who is now the secretary's special assistant for boards and commissions. Last year, Will was the education staff member for Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown.

More notable are some of the names that might have stayed below the radar but for the new Web page. Marshall (Mike) Smith is listed as Senior Counselor to the Secretary/Director of International Affairs. Longtime observers will know Mr. Smith by his former title of Under Secretary. In fact, he helped lead efforts in the Clinton Administration to create the Direct Student Loan program.

Other instances, combined with the power of search engines, create other links. The new Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Vocational and Adult Education is a former speaker of the Maine House, and was a former institutional advancement dean of a community college in that state. This buttresses the perception that the administration would like to very strongly align (or combine) the workforce programs in the Departments of Education and Labor.

The transparency also helps keep the public informed in real time. For example, the July 1, 2009, Department of Education staff directory, also now available on-line, did not list a chief of staff for the Under Secretary. (Chiefs of Staff of the three senior department offices play very important roles, at times more important than that of assistant secretaries and other appointees.) Since that time, the department appointed Alejandra Ceja to that position.

Every administration operates that way. When I served in the department there were, not surprisingly, large numbers of Texans. But there were also a significant number of Pennsylvanians who formerly worked with our outstanding first Under Secretary, who later became my boss as Deputy Secretary.

While in the administration, I worked with the highly competent daughter of a Republican U.S. Senator who served in a number of significant roles, and a few other far-less skilled people who shared familial relationships with current and former elected and appointed officials. The difference now is that the public can discern some of these relationships on-line and, more importantly, the mainstream and trade press will see these links more often than in the past. Indeed, had this kind of information been available, a few members of the press might have figured out that the Bush administration Department of Education was actually led a number of senior Democrats, contrary to popular perception.

For most people, this is just more inside baseball. But since one of the core values of American democracy is the ability of citizens to know what is happening in their government, the Obama administration has further embraced that value with a timely technological twist.

--C. Todd Jones