Tag Archives: access to government information

Re-thinking the public’s right to know vs. the public’s right to privacy

American democracy is a conspiracy of special interests against the general interest, but every special interest thinks that it is the general interest.  Michael Kinsley, Washington Post, February 20, 2005.

Media attention to open government issues has always tended to veer toward getting the interviews and opening the books when the spotlight is on an individual by whom or about whom information is either disclosed  or withheld.  We love to hear and talk about people more than issues or cold, inert information.  Just as important,  the tension between proponents or privacy and supporters of transparency makes good copy.

Clashes between privacy and open government are everywhere in the media these days, leaving confusion and concern on the minds of many Minnesotans.  As one of those trying to unravel the issues I recently revisited a  paper  I had filed years ago.  Entitled “Caught in the Middle: Access to State Government Records in the United Statesthe paper was presented by Richard Pearce-Moses at the Japan-U.S. Archives Seminar in May 2007.  At the time Pearce-Moses was Director of Digital Government Information at the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records.  In this highly charged privacy/transparency environment, it’s worth a re-read. 

Pearce-Moses defines his basic argument at the outset: 

What is the value of archives if not to provide access to information? Why spend time and effort collecting and organizing records if no one will ever use them?  Access to information is a cornerstone of the archival profession.  At the same time, archivists recognize and respect individuals’ and corporations’ rights to privacy, as well as legal restrictions on access to records in their custody.  The irony for public archives is that, at least in English, the word public embraces two contradictory senses: the records are public, in the sense they are of the people, but they are necessarily public, as some are confidential.

He is quick to remind the reader of the clear distinction between the requirement of government to preserve the record and the lack of parallel responsibility on the part of corporations and private individuals.

The legal aspect of access Pearce-Moses defines as Protecting the Government’s Interests vs Privacy.  The practical application of the law, he notes, usually focuses on “records”, including all books, papers, maps, photographs, machine readable materials, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics.”  The word “all”, he says, “incompasses a lot of material.”  The question itself has significant implications when it relates to states’ providing for inspection of public records.

Courts, he writes, have routinely held that access to records is subject to reasonable rules and regulations to avoid disruption of regular business.  However, the agency and the individual or organization making the request may have different ideas as to what they consider to be unreasonable disruption.

The thorny issue often lies in the area of definitions of information, records, and public records – an increasingly cloudy area that has loomed for a couple of decades. Exploding technology has become a staggering challenge to Deciders in today’s tsunami of tools that few have or take the time to consider in the longer term.

Neither bilateral nor ad hoc thinking is sufficient.  It will not suffice to tweak old models. This paper reminds me of just how essential it is for the concerned parties, including the public,  to drop the cudgels and come to grips with the fact that we must reframe the very issues of the public right to privacy and the public right to know.  The processes that protect those rights must flow from not dictate policy.

 

 

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African American History Month – Government Stats Tell the Story

A wise friend once opined that “no one has ever had an information need.”  We need to know about something – our health, our taxes, our family history, our neighborhood, our job prospects, our choice of an appliance, our rights, our kids’ school.  Information is the means, not the end.

The term “access to government information” weighs like a leaden balloon on the public ear.  Recognizing this,  I’ve mounted a personal mini-crusade to breathe life into people’s ideas of what is, after all, a vital public resource – and an incredibly boring subject for all but the info-obsessed.

Even as the Census Bureau is tabulating the results of last year’s mighty count, folks there (and yes, real people are involved) are lending a generous hand by compiling and distributing an array of lists of government information focused on topics of interest.

Last week I was touting a Census Bureau compilation on Superbowl XVI minutia, irresistible to all but pro football luddites (if that’s a term.)  Frivolous to some of us, perhaps, but a glimpse into the creative imaginations of statisticians at the Census Bureau.

This week’s offering is of far greater consequence.  As we immerse ourselves in Black History Month we all have a lot to learn.  Though we could easily drown in the sea of information resources that pours forth during the month of February the Census Bureau collection of data and links is convenient, authoritative and a prime example of public information serving public purposes.

Though this snippet is akin to a spotting small star in the cosmos of public information, it illuminates what access to government information is all about.  It’s information you can trust, find with ease, and use at will with no concern for payment (it’s pre-paid by the American public) or ownership (it belongs to the people.)   Remember this list is saturated with numbers – it is from the Census Bureau.  And it is just one facet of the universe of information the government is so good at collecting, organizing and making available.

Black (African-American) History Month:
February 2011

To commemorate and celebrate the contributions to our nation made by people of African descent, American historian Carter G. Woodson established Black History Week. The first celebration occurred on Feb. 12, 1926. For many years, the second week of February was set aside for this celebration to coincide with the birthdays of abolitionist/editor Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. In 1976, as part of the nation’s bicentennial, the week was expanded into Black History Month. Each year, U.S. presidents proclaim February as National African-American History Month.

The population figures shown here are based on various sources but not on the 2010 Census. We expect to release 2010 figures for the black population and other races by April 1, 2011.

Population

41.8 million

As of July 1, 2009, the estimated population of black residents in the United States, including those of more than one race. They made up 13.6 percent of the total U.S. population. This figure represents an increase of more than a half-million residents from one year earlier.
Source: Population estimates <http://www.census.gov/popest/national/asrh/NC-EST2009-srh.html>

65.7 million

The projected black population of the United States (including those of more than one race) for July 1, 2050. On that date, according to the projection, blacks would constitute 15 percent of the nation’s total population.
Source: Population projections <http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/population/cb08-123.html>

18

Number of states with an estimated black population on July 1, 2009, of at least 1 million. New York, with 3.5 million, led the way. The other 17 states on the list were Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
Source: Population estimates <http://www.census.gov/popest/states/asrh/SC-EST2009-04.html>

38%

Percentage of Mississippi’s population that was black in 2009. Although New York had the largest number of blacks of any state, Mississippi had the largest share of blacks in its total population. Blacks also made up more than a quarter of the population in Louisiana (33 percent), Georgia (31 percent), Maryland (31 percent), South Carolina (29 percent) and Alabama (27 percent). They comprised 55 percent of the population in the District of Columbia.
Source: Population estimates <http://www.census.gov/popest/states/asrh/SC-EST2009-04.html>

72,100

The increase in Texas’ black population between July 1, 2008, and July 1, 2009, which led all states.
Source: Population estimates <http://www.census.gov/popest/states/asrh/SC-EST2009-04.html>

23

Number of states in which blacks were the largest minority group in 2009. These included Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Blacks were also the largest minority group in the District of Columbia. (Note: Minorities are part of a group other than single-race non-Hispanic white.)
Source: Population estimates <http://www.census.gov/popest/states/asrh/SC-EST2009-04.html>

1.4 million

The number of blacks in Cook County, Ill., as of July 1, 2009, which led the nation’s counties in the number of people of this racial category. Harris County, Texas, had the largest numerical increase in the black population between July 1, 2008, and July 1, 2009 (15,700).
Source: Population estimates <http://www.census.gov/popest/counties/asrh/>

Among counties with total populations of at least 10,000, Claiborne County, Miss., had the largest percent of population that was black (85 percent). Claiborne led 77 majority-black counties or equivalents.
Source: Population estimates <http://www.census.gov/popest/counties/asrh/>

30%

The proportion of the black population younger than 18 as of July 1, 2009. At the other end of the spectrum, 8 percent of the black population was 65 and older.
Source: Population estimates <http://www.census.gov/popest/national/asrh/NC-EST2009-asrh.html>

Note: Unless otherwise noted, the estimates in this section refer to the population that was either single-race black or black in combination with one or more other races.

Serving Our Nation

2.3 million

Number of single-race black military veterans in the United States in 2009.
Source: 2009 American Community Survey <http://factfinder.census.gov>

Education

84%

Among blacks 25 and older, the proportion who had at least a high school diploma in 2009.
Source: Educational Attainment in the United States: 2009 <http://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/education/data/cps/2009/tables.html>

19%

Percentage of blacks 25 and older who had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2009.
Source: Educational Attainment in the United States: 2009 <http://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/education/data/cps/2009/tables.html>

1.5 million

Among blacks 25 and older, the number who had an advanced degree in 2009 (e.g., master’s, doctorate, medical or law). A decade earlier, in 1999, about 900,000 blacks had this level of education.
Source: Educational Attainment in the United States: 2009 <http://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/education/data/cps/2009/tables.html>

2.5 million

Number of black college students in fall 2008. This was roughly double the corresponding number from 25 years earlier.
Source: School Enrollment — Social and Economic Characteristics of Students: October 2008
<http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/education/2009-11-02_education.html>

Voting

16.1 million

The number of blacks who voted in the 2008 presidential election, up by about 2.1 million from the 2004 presidential election. The total number of voters rose by 5.4 million, to 131.1 million.
Source: Voting and Registration in the Election of 2008
<http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/voting/cb09-110.html>

55%

Turnout rate in the 2008 presidential election for the 18- to 24-year-old citizen black population, an 8 percent increase from 2004. Blacks had the highest turnout rate in this age group.
Source: Voting and Registration in the Election of 2008
<http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/voting/cb09-110.html>

65%

Turnout rate among black citizens in the 2008 presidential election, up about 5 percentage points from 2004. Looking at voter turnout by race and Hispanic origin, non-Hispanic whites and blacks had the highest turnout levels.
Source: Voting and Registration in the Election of 2008
<http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/voting/cb09-110.html>

Income, Poverty and Health Insurance

$32,584

The annual median income of single-race black households in 2009, a decline of 4.4 percent (in 2009 constant dollars) from 2008.
Source: Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009
<http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/income_wealth/cb10-144.html>

25.8%

Poverty rate in 2009 for single-race blacks, up from 24.7 percent in 2008.
Source: Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009
<http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/income_wealth/cb10-144.html>

21.0%

The percentage of single-race blacks lacking health insurance in 2009, up from 19.1 percent in 2008.
Source: Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009
<http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/income_wealth/cb10-144.html>

Families and Children

64%

Among households with a single-race black householder, the percentage that contained a family. There were 8.6 million black family households.
Source: 2009 American Community Survey <http://factfinder.census.gov>

44%

Among families with single-race black householders, the percentage that were married couples.
Source: 2009 American Community Survey <http://factfinder.census.gov>

1.3 million

Number of single-race black grandparents who lived with their own grandchildren younger than 18. Of this number, 50 percent were also responsible for their care.
Source: 2009 American Community Survey <http://factfinder.census.gov>

Homeownership

44%

Nationally, the percentage of households with a householder who was single-race black who lived in owner-occupied homes.
Source: 2009 American Community Survey <http://factfinder.census.gov>

Jobs

28%

The percentage of single-race blacks 16 and older who worked in management, professional and related occupations.
Source: 2009 American Community Survey <http://factfinder.census.gov>

Businesses

$137.4 billion

Receipts for black-owned businesses in 2007, up 55.1 percent from 2002. The number of black-owned businesses totaled 1.9 million in 2007, up 60.5 percent.

37.6%

Percentage of black-owned businesses in 2007 in health care and social assistance, repair and maintenance and personal and laundry services.

28.2%

Percentage of businesses in the District of Columbia in 2007 which were black-owned, which led all states or state-equivalents. Georgia and Maryland followed, at 20.4 percent and 19.3 percent, respectively.
Source for statements in this section: Preliminary Estimates of Business Ownership by Gender, Ethnicity, Race and Veteran Status: 2007 <http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/economic_census/cb10-107.html>

International Right to Know Day

Though you may not read or hear much about International Right to Know Day on September 28, 2010, the astounding fact is that NGO’s, press groups and others in over forty nations worldwide will be taking a moment to celebrate the essential, if implicit, human right.  Since its inception in 2002 the goal of RTK Day has been to raise global awareness of individuals’ right to access government information and to promote access to information as a fundamental human right.

The underlying principles echoed throughout the celebration of RTK Day are that public interest takes precedence over secrecy and that public bodies play a proactive role as vehicles of public access.  Though transparency has become a buzz word at every level of government, organizations and advocates who are truly concerned might well take a collective deep breath and review the reality.  For advocates laboring in the local vineyard there is strength to be found in the fact that committed colleagues in a host of nations are making waves and even progress.  While Canada celebrates International RTK – and the right itself – with great gusto other nations ranging from Bulgaria to China to Nigeria believe, work and are taking concrete steps to promote the right to know as a basic human right.

One example of work in progress is the extensive draft report currently being circulated for discussion throughout Europe.   Access Info Europe and the Open Knowledge Foundation, in collaboration with Open Society Institute Information Program, are holding a “public consultation” on open government data and the right of access to information based on that document that bears the working title Beyond Access. The draft report assesses the current status of open government data and the right to reuse, offering a current and inclusive review of movements, examples and comments on future directions.  It’s worth a look.

FOI Advocates offers an excellent mix of ideas of ways that individuals and organizations of virtually every stripe can celebrate RTK Day 2010 – it’s specific, thought-generating and very useful.  It’s not too late to turn out a letter to the editor, an exhibit or a quick self-assessment of what your or your organization is doing to promote – or inhibit – access.