“Useful But Prohibited”: Air Force Openness Lags

10.28.09 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Some of the steps that are favored by the Obama Administration to open up government to public access and participation may be “useful” but they are nevertheless “prohibited” on U.S. Air Force web sites, according to a new Air Force policy instruction.

In a January 21, 2009 memorandum on transparency and open government, President Obama directed that “Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public…. Executive departments and agencies should solicit public feedback to assess and improve their level of collaboration and to identify new opportunities for cooperation.”

The U.S. Air Force has a different vision, however.

A new Air Force policy on public communications (pdf) observed that “web-based message boards, threaded chat rooms, and guest books… allow users to post opinions, messages, or information openly on a web site.  They provide a useful means of creating two-way communication but are prohibited as part of public web site services (sec. 10)”

Instead of the “unprecedented level of openness” promised by the President, the Air Force prefers to follow precedent in other ways as well.

Only content that “is intended for a wide public audience” will be considered by the Air Force for publication online.  All other materials “should be posted on the [password-protected] Air Force Portal web site.”  Moreover, “all content on a public web site must be cleared for public release.”  See “Public Web Communications,” Air Force Instruction 35-107, October 21, 2009.

Unfortunately, the Air Force’s mandatory pre-publication clearance process (pdf) for “all content” is arduous, time-consuming and technologically primitive.  Authors should allow ten days for Air Force review, or twenty days when approval is needed from the Department of Defense.  Incredibly, materials for review can only be submitted in hardcopy (six paper copies for the Air Force and an additional four copies for DoD). Air Force Public Affairs says that it “does not accept material for review via e-mail or any other electronic means” (sec. 8).

On the other hand, “theatrical reviews… and works of fiction that are not sourced from active-duty experience” are excused from the pre-publication review requirement.  See “Security and Policy Review Process,” Air Force Instruction 35-102, October 20, 2009.

These new Air Force directives, and another Air Force Instruction on Public Affairs Policies and Procedures (pdf) that was modified last week, do not even mention the January 2009 Obama transparency memorandum, and certainly do not reflect its declared intent.

The impact of the President’s January memorandum has been deferred because the implementing Open Government Directive that was originally due for release in May has still not been completed. [Correction: The May 2009 deadline was for development of “recommendations” for the Open Government Directive, not for release of the Directive itself.]

But the Directive “will come out this fall,” said Beth Noveck, White House deputy chief technology officer for open government, at a meeting organized by the Center for Democracy and Technology yesterday.  The forthcoming Directive, to be issued by the Office of Management and Budget, will provide “a framework for agencies to pursue their own transparency initiatives,” she said.