Federal agencies like FDA are moving creakily, if at all, to implement the “open government” mandate from the Obama administration as old practices continue and in some cases solidify. A year and a half after the president issued his mandate, little has changed at FDA apart from a new “FDA Basics” web page which has information the agency thinks people should know, and recommendations on improved document availability from an internal FDA Transparency Task Force.
Meanwhile, instantly do-able administrative-type reforms, like re-opening the agency's staff to direct media contact, as in decades past, have been ignored. Now reporters are restricted to press offices which shield agency employees from the media's inquiring minds—and where public information can be given the “spin” the government wants it to have.
The main problem is agency “culture”—those long-established practices that make career civil servants comfortable in their various assignments. The old system of reporters calling or emailing at will made some FDAers uncomfortable, although most saw it as a cost of their service in the world's most open government. All that changed after the 1996 Oklahoma City bombing was that metal detectors were installed in all federal buildings. The development of confidential sources unknown to management became impossible. Worse, press officers started monitoring and taping communications.
In May, the internal FDA Transparency Task Force rejected a request from journalism groups to restore the prior media access system. It said it would strive to make the present system work better.
For government managers, controlling the media is too powerful a tool to voluntarily surrender.
James G. Dickinson is editor of Dickinson's FDA Webview (fdaweb.com)