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Run Off an Extra Copy of Transition Meeting Memos, This One for the Public

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, December 8 2008

President-elect Barack Obama wants you in on a meeting. Which meeting? All of them. In its latest bid at transparency and participation, the transition team is putting all the memos, documents, and other written material presented by outside groups up on its Change.gov, in a new section called "Your Seat at the Table."

No word, yet, from the transition on whether such openness will continue on in the White House after January 20th, Inauguration Day. But what it has accomplished already has set a tone starkly different than the Bush-Cheney Administration, which went all the way to the Supreme Court in a bid to keep the prying eyes of the public away from the closeted proceedings of the Vice President's Energy Task Force and its meetings with oil and energy companies, Enron among them.

Already posted on Seat at the Table are three-page "Analysis of HIV/AIDS Priority Issues for Immediate Action" from the AIDS Action Council's Rebecca Haag and "Advancing Reproductive Rights and Health in a New Administration," a 55-page blueprint authored by a coalition of dozens of groups.

Beyond simply taking a look at the official briefing papers presented to the transition by outside groups, the incoming administration is asking the public to talk back. Each briefing paper can be commented on (and community rated). More formal replies can be sent along, including attachments.

Obama's Director of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs Michael Strautmanis said in a YouTube video posted to the site that having "a seat at the table" means not only having a chance to witness government in action, but to participate. Strautmanis ties the transparent approach to both the "change" message of the campaign and the possibility that government might begin to get things done:

"Having a seat at the table means you have an opportunity to respond to what other people are saying, what other people are presenting. Transparency is the process that leads to real change, and transparency is the process by which people have confidence that things are really going to be different, that they will have that seat at the table."

And transition head John Podesta outlined the approach in a memo (pdf) to all staff, directed them to release both the document that come in during official meetings and the existence of the meetings themselves. Podesta told the team that "this scope is a floor, not a ceiling, and all staff are strongly encouraged to include additional materials."

Now, as PDFs, these memos and files aren't exactly easy to work with, annotate, and analyze. And more important than memos are minutes, meaning that what gets discussed at these gatherings is likely going to be far more meaningful than the pre-packaged briefing materials any outside group is going to bring in.

What's more, everyone is eager to work with the incoming administration now, but what happens when an outside player the Obama White House needs on board to, say, overhaul health care, a major campaign promise, balks at the idea of being so open about doing the people's business?

That said, the Obama transition team is certainly making a lot of noise about openness and transparency, and is raising hopes that there's going to be a sea change in how Washington functions. It seems none too concerned with raising extraordinarily high expectations about participatory government. Think back to the campaign's open-air acceptance speech at the 75,000-person capacity Invesco Field, though -- Obama seems happy to raise the stakes when he's convinced he can deliver.