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Watchdog: Accountability

Shaming tight-lipped bureaucrats on Veterans Affairs issues could improve transparency, open government advocates say

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Shaming the Department of Veterans Affairs for its closed-mouthed tactics through a new congressional website is a unique tactic that will ratchet up pressure on all agencies to be more transparent, media and open government advocates say.

Whether it works remains to be seen.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs this week launched its “VA Honesty Project,” which digitally chronicles a long and growing list of refusals by VA officials to comment in press reports about the troubled agency.

Posted on the site are news stories from around the country dealing with topics including preventable patient deaths, long backlogs in disability claims and big bonuses to failing administrators.

The stories are peppered with VA spokesmen refusing to comment or not responding at all to requests for information.

Media experts contacted by the Washington Examiner said they are not aware of previous instances of a congressional committee using the tactic to shame an agency for stonewalling the media.

They said it is a positive development as the flow of information from the federal government is increasingly funneled through public relations officers, who are placing ever-tighter controls on what they say or release.

“Government agencies just don’t want to talk about things that embarrass them and frankly, for a long time, Veterans Affairs has been a complete mess,” said Kevin Goldberg, legal counsel for the American Society of News Editors.

“What it takes in a lot of situations is a public shaming to overcome that wall that gets put up,” Goldberg said.

The information blackout is not confined to the media. The House Veterans Committee also has a website listing its own unanswered requests for information from the agency.

Nor is the VA the only agency restricting media access, despite the pledge made by President Obama before he took office that he would have the most transparent administration in history.

Earlier this month, the Associated Press published a story showing in 2013 the Obama administration “more often than ever censored government files or outright denied access to them” in dealing with requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act.

In November, the White House Correspondents Association protested the exclusion of media photographers from events involving the president.

Photos and videos of those events were taken by White House's own photographers and released through official White House social media sites, “blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the executive branch of government,” the letter said.

Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor at the Washington Post and now a journalism professor at Arizona State University, said in a report published in October that efforts to restrict information under Obama “are the most aggressive I've seen since the Nixon administration.”

Downie said the Obama administration “discloses too little of the information most needed by the press and public to hold the administration accountable for its policies and actions."

VA budgets list 54 people in the agency’s public affairs department, though it’s not clear whether that includes public relations staffers at regional and local offices, as well as its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The Examiner sought clarification from the agency, which has not responded.

That’s typical.

Past requests from the Examiner, many of which appear on the House committee’s site, have either been ignored or drawn no comments from the agency.

More often, VA's press office sends a generic statement that does not answer specific questions posed for the story, with the caveat that it should be attributed to an unnamed Veterans Affairs spokesman.

The VA’s responses often come after a story is published.

What's happening at VA is part of a disturbing pattern across all levels of government to control and manipulate the flow of information by channeling media access through their public relations offices, said David Cuillier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and director of the University of Arizona's School of Journalism.

Federal agencies are the worst, but state and local bureaucrats are following the trend, he said.

People making policy decisions and those on the front lines frequently are prohibited from talking directly to the media, Cuillier said.

Questions must be sent to the public affairs office, which typically crafts a response, if the agency responds at all.

A 2012 survey by SPJ of reporters who cover the federal government found they routinely deal with agencies that prohibit their employees from talking with the media without approval of the press office.

When interviews are allowed, they are often monitored by public information officers.

A survey of government press officers released earlier this month shows about 65 percent of them believe it is necessary to supervise interviews of agency staff.

About 39 percent say they will refuse to allow agency personnel to be interviewed by reporters they have had problems with in the past, according to the survey done by SPJ and the National Association of Government Communicators.

It's all part of the effort by bureaucrats to manage their agency's Image by filtering the information that gets released, said Rick Blum, director of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media organizations that promotes more openness in the federal government.

It is a disservice to the public and ultimately creates the Image that the agency is hiding something, Blum said.

“In the long run, they are not doing themselves any favors,” Blum said. “Too often, secrecy is to protect people who are trying to hide deeper problems. That’s never going to get those problems solved.

“Its always better to be open and honest about challenges, failures and mistakes in order to learn from them,” Blum said.

“Transparency isn’t just a good value. Yes, it’s vital to our democracy, but it also helps solve problems by shedding light on them.”

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Author:

Mark Flatten

Senior Watchdog Reporter
The Washington Examiner