It’s eight years now since the first Sunshine Week, celebrated this week, March 10-March16. Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote discussion about the importance of freedom of information and open government. The week was chosen to coincide with the birthday of James Madison (more about the Mr. Madison later). At the national level the prime mover behind Sunshine Week was the American Society of News Editors, later joined by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
In those eight years change on every front has transformed the very context in which we celebrate Sunshine Week 2013. Change has occurred at such a dizzying pace that government, the press, and citizens may be at a loss, seeking for some framework to understand how open government could and should work in the 21st Century.
The fact that it is the press that initiated the concept of Sunshine Week is significant. The media environment of today bears scant resemblance to what it was a decade ago. Investigative reporting is more honored in the breach than in the observance. Warp speed journalism doesn’t allow time for deep investigation. The print press has faded in the wings as everyone with a smart phone is both a source and consumer of what passes for news.
The flow of information between government and the general populace is totally changed. The government both gathers and produces information online – and with the change in format come challenges that confound agencies and constituencies alike.
Though the current administration has established policies to promote openness, the wheels of government grind slowly, and a strict diet of transparency is problematic at best.
So it is interesting to note what’s happening this week as the watchdogs of open government grapple with open government circa 2013. Some examples:
- Monday morning started with the Fourth Annual Department of Justice Sunshine Week Celebration at which the DOJ’s chief Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) officer led a discussion of federal agencies’ improvements in FOIA administration.
- Symbolic but important, at the same time there was a rare viewing and discussion of the Freedom of Information Act at the National Archives, including a demonstration of the multi-agency FOIA portal. Despite the bold pronouncement that “all agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure” charges of recalcitrance on the part of agencies will undoubtedly surfaced at this session.
- On Tuesday, the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) will host two panel discussions examining transparency and national security in the Obama administration’s second term. These are all-star panels on hot topics. This is one of two Sunshine Week sessions that will be webcast – reservations requested. The webcast is Noon-3:00 p.m. RSVP to www.foreffectivegov.org/webcastsrsvp
- Also on Tuesday, March 12, the National Press Club’s Freedom of the Press Committee will hold a panel discussion, 6:30 p.m., about the effect on the press of laws enacted globally after 9-11.
- On Wednesday, March 12, there will be a hearing of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, “We the People: Fulfilling the Promise of Open Government Five Years after The OPEN Government Act.”
- At the same time Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the George Washington University Law School will be asking the question: Does U.S. Secret Law Threaten our Democracy?
- Thursday the Brennan Center for Justice will host a panel discussion on the topic “Secrecy and Security: The Future of Classification Reform.” Meanwhile the Cato Institute is holding a workshop looking at legislative data and Wikipedia and the National Press Club will host a panel discussion on using FOIA.
- Friday is the Annual National Freedom of Information Day conference, this year at the Newseum. In morning sessions Open the Government will presents its eighth annual Sunshine Week examination of the state of openness in the federal government, focusing this year on the outlook for the President’s second term. The day includes a keynote discussion with First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams and a discussion of the new documentary Whistleblowers. The American Library Association will also presents it James Madison Award. This FOI Day observance is the second of the week’s events that will be webcast beginning at 8:30 a.m. (7:30 CST)
It may tempting to think that these Sunshine Week activities are only for the Beltway Insiders and government geeks. Still, without these Insiders, the watchdogs, the whistblowers and the faithful attendees at hearings and endless meetings, the public right to access would surely be thwarted.
We depend on the eyes and ears – and collaborative efforts – of these observers to keep the decision-making processes remains open to the press and to the public. They keep a watchful eye to be sure that the exigencies of the day do not interfere with the assumption of openness. Though it may seem remote, consider these stories of the ways in which access to government information play out in the real world, the real world where it makes a difference to every one of us.
We may not be there to keep an eagle eye on the day’s decisions, but we live with the consequences.