The Delta we Deserve?

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety – Benjamin Franklin

This quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin is widely paraphrased as “we get the government we deserve.”  If Franklin were to observe our current Administration, he might have said, “They who can give up essential democracy to “get stuff done” deserve neither democracy nor the stuff that gets done.”

Thanks to a “tweet” by Associated Press reporter Martha Mendoza for a link to a chilling exchange between two employees of the U.S. State Department (identified only as “Senior Administration Official One” (SAO1) and “Senior Administration Official Two” (SAO2)), a moderator and reporters who attended a Background Briefing on a Preview of the Open Government Partnership, Special Briefing  held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City on September 19, 2011.

You can read the text of the Background Briefing here and the President’s announcement the following day here.

When the Open Government Partnership briefing (more accurately described as a “preview” as in “coming soon to a theater near you”) was opened to questions from reporters, this exchange occurred between a reporter and the preview moderator:

QUESTION: (Inaudible) why – has it struck anyone as odd to a briefing about open government and transparency on background?

QUESTION: Why is that necessary?

MODERATOR: There will be another briefing at – are you doing another briefing afterwards that’s on the record? I think you are. No? No. I think not.

QUESTION: Just so you understand this, we have to explain why officials are speaking anonymously. And if anyone is going to write – at least I do, and I think others do as well. But to write a story talking about U.S. officials anonymously plugging an Obama initiative for open government just – it makes – I’m sorry. It just makes —

MODERATOR: Because the event is happening tomorrow. The President will be on the record with his counterparts tomorrow. This is a preview, and it’s a preview by senior Administration officials below the level of the President. So the President will speak on the record tomorrow, but this is a preview.

QUESTION: But how does that advance the very goals you’re discussing, which are transparency and accountability. The two people who have spoken to us are not identified, so there’s no transparency about who they are. And because they speak under a cloak of anonymity, there is no particular accountability of what they’ve said. I mean, I cannot believe that you – this didn’t occur to anybody, and I don’t think the fact that the President’s going to announce it tomorrow is a very persuasive argument for not disclosing who you are.

MODERATOR: We are seeking to be transparent about what’s going to happen tomorrow. If you’d prefer us not to do that, then we don’t need to do that. But our thought was that it was better to give you a preview without preempting our President, and that’s what we’re endeavoring to do. Are there questions before —

This apparent contradiction between transparency and anonymity was never explained by the moderator or the anonymous officials.

Later in the preview, SAO2 described two Presidential initiatives.  One, called “the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative [defined as] “a voluntary framework in which governments come together with industry, oil, gas, and mineral companies, and with civil society. And basically what you have are governments publicly disclosing what revenues they’re getting from oil, gas, and mineral companies and from those assets. And then the companies are making parallel disclosures regarding the payments that they are making in order to – for them to obtain access to public resources, public lands, and so forth.”  The second Presidential initiative, We the People, SAO2 defined as “a petition process whereby citizens can petition their government using, of course, the tools, the technology that we have at our disposal. And if they meet a certain threshold, a certain number of signatures, they will get a policy response to generate an internal policy process and then generate a response.”  This exchange then occurred:

QUESTION: Two just quick technical questions. You’re saying that currently it’s not publically available how much a company pays the U.S. Government in royalties each year, by company?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I’m going to – I’m not the person to ask the question. I can put you in touch with – in order to know exactly what the delta is. But my sense is it’s a question of how aggregated the data is and whether it’s done by basically – I mean, I’m sure there’s information somewhere about Shell gives this amount of money to the federal government, but that’s different than disaggregating the data in a way that can be compared usefully, and that’s what I think this initiative takes forward.

QUESTION: Okay. And is the — you said they’ll get a policy response if they get a certain number of signatures. I assume that just means somebody will give them a comment on their issue; they won’t necessarily respond as an act upon what they want done.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: There’s no guarantee that simply getting a number of signatures would cause you to change the course of American policy, but what it will do is ensure that it gets the high-level attention at the White House, such that somebody is considering it, reflecting on it. And that certainly – that kind of level of deliberation is a prerequisite for change, so it’s not sufficient for change but it is necessary to bring things to senior policy makers’ attention, and that’s what the site will do.

QUESTION: By delta just now, you meant change?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yes. It’s a word I use incurably.

First, it was “We are the change we have been waiting for.”  Then, it was “Yes, we can change.”  Then, “the change we believe in.”  Then, the change we need.”  Now, it seems, the word “change” itself has transmogrified into the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet, meaning change in the value of a variable in math or science (also, among other things, uncertainty in a physical variable and a defendant in a lawsuit).

Previews have replaced briefings and “senior officials” are now officially “off the record.”

Change the word “signatures” to the word “votes” in the sentence above and you get this:  “There’s no guarantee that simply getting a number of votes would cause you to change the course of American policy.”

This is the delta we have become.  It’s apparently incurable.

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