The Transparency President? The Obama Administration and Open Government

Governance, Vol. 22, No. 4, p. 522, October 2009

U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 09-18

17 Pages Posted: 16 Jul 2009 Last revised: 12 Jan 2010

See all articles by Cary Coglianese

Cary Coglianese

University of Pennsylvania Law School

Date Written: October 2009


President Obama has trumpeted transparency as a major part of his reform agenda, promising an "unprecedented" degree of governmental openness and overseeing a variety of open government reforms, from changes in Freedom of Information Act policies to the creation of new websites like Recovery.Gov. Although transparency is politically popular, and the Obama Administration benefits in the short run by contrasting itself with the Bush Administration's reputation for secrecy, in the long run President Obama's rhetoric on openness in government may backfire politically. Too much emphasis on making government a fishbowl will only raise expectations about an unattainable or undesirable level of openness. Transparency has clear benefits but it also has its costs, as when, for example, the prospect of disclosure dampens internal deliberation and self-criticism by government officials. The real choice for government, then, is how much transparency, and what type, to offer over different processes. The Obama Administration has already found itself needing to make tradeoffs and place limits on transparency, and it is likely to continue to do so in the years to come. Yet members of the public, and certainly open-government activists, are unlikely to appreciate the need for making such tradeoffs, generating disappointment among the administration's supporters and charges of hypocrisy by its opponents. It remains unclear whether Barack Obama will ultimately earn the mantle of the "transparency president" - or whether the unrealistic hopes for openness in government he has raised will, when unfulfilled, only serve to reinforce public cynicism about government.

Posted paper, uploaded January 2010, is the published version of the working paper originally posted July 2009.

Keywords: governmental openness, disclosure, Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, secrecy, politics, internal deliberation, government information policy, signals, political risk, transparency limits, President Obama

Suggested Citation

Coglianese, Cary, The Transparency President? The Obama Administration and Open Government (October 2009). Governance, Vol. 22, No. 4, p. 522, October 2009, U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 09-18, Available at SSRN: or

Cary Coglianese (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
215-898-6867 (Phone)


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