Watchdog Investigation Produces Biden Cabinet Transparency Report

Watchdog Investigation Produces Biden Cabinet Transparency Report

  • January 4, 2022

Nearly two-thirds of agencies studied provide no public information on their top leaders’ meetings

Today, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust unveiled a report evaluating an important aspect of transparency for nearly two dozen members of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet and other senior leaders at important federal agencies. The study of public calendars for 19 federal agencies reveals a wide disparity in the levels of transparency regarding the agency head’s schedule.

Of the agencies studied, Protect the Public’s Trust ranked the transparency of the Environmental Protection Agency highest. EPA earned the only “A” grade, with areas for improvement concerning proactively providing detailed information on the topics and attendees for Administrator Michael Regan’s meetings.

PPT awarded “B” grades to two agencies – the Departments of Labor and Defense. The Departments of Education, State, and Treasury earned “C” grades. Originally, the Department of the Interior (DOI) had earned the only “D” grade from PPT. However, after the report was submitted for publication, DOI filled in a four-month gap of calendars for Secretary Deb Haaland. PPT updated Interior’s grade to a “C” as a result of the additional information.

Twelve of the agencies – the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs, as well as the Office of Personnel Management, Small Business Administration, and U.S. Agency for International Development provide no easily-accessible public schedule or calendar for their agency head. Some agencies’ current lack of transparency stands in contrast to the level demonstrated by their predecessors in the Trump and Obama administrations.

Access to a top leaders’ schedule allows the public to see with whom the agency’s primary decision maker is meeting and what topics they are discussing.

“Transparency is a foundational element of the American system of government,” stated Director of Protect the Public’s Trust, Michael Chamberlain. “It’s also important for agencies to be proactive about providing this information, which is vital for the American public’s ability to ascertain who is influencing policymakers at the highest levels. Every agency we looked at has room for improvement. We’re hopeful that by PPT shining the light on current and former practices at these agencies they will pursue those improvements. This is just the start of a continuing project. The American public deserves it.”

The grades above are based on four aspects of each agency’s principal officer’s (Secretary, Administrator, etc.) calendar, with the letter grade assigned based on how many of the criteria PPT determined the agency meets.

  • Accessibility – How easy or difficult is it for the layperson to find and to navigate through? To gauge accessibility, we looked for links to the calendar on the agency’s home page and the principal’s and principal’s office’s information page, used relevant search terms such as “secretary calendar” or “administrator calendar” and “[principal’s last name] calendar”, and searched for links to calendars in the agency’s FOIA Reading Room, where they post common requests.
  • Quality – Does the calendar provide meaningful information regarding who has the ear of the agency principal? Can the reader determine whom the principal met with and what they discussed? For each agency providing a public calendar, PPT noted whether it contained only public appearances or listed private meetings as well. The best examples are copies of the official’s Outlook/Google calendar or an online document in which all of the information that would be contained in that calendar, including individual attendees and topic, is presented. 
  • Completeness – How much of the principal’s tenure is available on the calendar? An agency can hardly be deemed transparent if the publicly available calendar is missing significant blocks of time. 
  • Timeliness – How often are the entries posted? The more time that elapses from the date of a meeting until it is made public, the less useful the information.