Thought for 2014: Government ought to be all outside and no inside

Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States on January 1, 1914, wrote these words a century ago: “Government ought to be all outside and no inside.”  A century later we have an unprecedented opportunity to heed his counsel.

My association with government information has always been somewhat personal.  Decades ago Superintendent of Documents Carper W. Buckley was my Government Documents professor in library school.  At one point I worked for a Wisconsin Congressman where one of my assigned tasks was to pack up and mail the surplus volumes of the Agriculture Yearbook, generously exchanged by his fellow Congressmen who traded for titles they thought more relevant to their urban constituents.  I also remember a summer during which temp employees  in the House of Representatives mail room were assigned to rip the covers off Your Child From One to Six – Southern members couldn’t send their constituents a government publication that featured a Black doctor treating a white child….

At one point I worked at what was then the Bureau of the Budget.  I was intrigued by the off-limits corner where the “classified” documents were shielded from the view of “non-professionals.”. I think I had the misconception that they were like the banned books on The Index.

Bottom line, I always knew that the business of sharing information by and about the federal government was an intensely human enterprise, subject to politics, budgets, human proclivities – and inattention.  The power of information is perhaps too overwhelming, and too implicit, for us to grasp.

With time and experience my anecdotal interest has evolved to a deeper understanding of the unparalleled power of the government information chain to shape our very democracy.  Each link has a unique and powerful role – from who decides what research in conducted and what data are collected to who is watching the surge of power pulsing through the information chain.   Though the power is palpable, warp speed technology, the interference of economic and political forces with their own agenda, inattention to oversight – and a heavy dose of malicious intent – have transformed the concept of open government.

Still, at the core, I maintain my firm, if naïve, conviction that information by and about the government, information that is the lifeblood of a democracy, belongs to the people.   As James Madison warned,  “popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.”

We are at a crossroads.  If there is good to be found in recent leaks it is that, finally, the American people are taking a serious look at the ways in which our government deals with the coin of the realm of this or any democracy – information by and about the government.  At the dawn of the digital age  Swedish philosopher  Sissela Bok cautioned that “a guarantee of public access to government information is indispensable in the long run for any democratic society….If officials make public only what they want citizens to know, then publicity becomes a sham and accountability meaningless.”

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