Sunshine Week Shines on Open Government

swlogo-198x300Sunshine Week, which runs March 16-22, is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. It began with a group of Florida editors starting Sunshine Sunday where they held a coordinated campaign to focus on open government.

Without an effort to keep government open we could shift to a government-run society. “We would gradually see an acceleration of initiatives intended for perfectly good reasons to keep information from the public — to protect privacy or efficiency or security or internal deliberation — to the point that the public would have to prove a ‘need to know’ to penetrate the custodian’s protective shield around the government information,” says Tonda Rush, a media lawyer in Washington, D.C., and a long time National Federation of Press Women member.

Some think we are already there in many categories of records. “When that happens, we shift from an open society to a government-run society where democracy has to apologize for asking to be informed,” Rush says.

Part of an open government is Freedom of Information, which on the federal level, “creates the presumption that all the records of the federal executive branch are open, unless closed for a permissible and exempt reason,” Rush explains.“It sets an important tone of transparency and citizen-stakeholder values in our national life.”

In addition, every state has some version of an open records law (as well as open meetings laws) that give this same guarantee of citizen-facing transparency, and in that case, opens the government that works most closely with most people in their daily work and lives.

“Unfortunately, the many exemptions, competing stakeholders and sometimes conflicting court opinions have made most of these laws something of a Swiss cheese,” Rush notes. “Also, the plethora of privacy laws coming from Congress and state legislatures have created a gaping hole where public accountability is sometimes entrapped.”

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One thought on “Sunshine Week Shines on Open Government

  1. Susan Walton says:

    Thanks for addressing this important aspect of American life. I hope that all of us interested in journalism, communication & government — and in continuing its healthy progress, will put some effort into our local Open Government groups. It could be as simple as making a donation to these non-profits,or more involved as in attending their seminars and trainings, or stepping up to serve on their boards. I’ve found these groups blend the best of Americans (of many political beliefs and backgrounds, too!) into important local and state work. My experience is with New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. It survived the death of its founding Executive Director several years ago (a retired wire-services reporter, editor, etc.) and continues its work to keep the government’s business on behalf of the people open for people to see. We are fortunate that our local state-wide groups like the League of Women Voters and often the NM Press Women chapters also host a March luncheon on this topic annually. Emails and conducting the business of the public are a hot topic this year.

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