Tag Archives: freedom of information

Congress moves to expand access to critical research

Though probably unscheduled, the pending expansion of access policy re. reports of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) is super-timely.  CRS staff research and reports are valued as authoritative , timely and consequential resources, heretofore reserved for members of Congress, their staff, and info mavens. .  Extending access to the general public is something like a digital fireworks display for seekers of authoritative information.

For decades the debate has centered on one key question:  Does “confidentiality” demand that the work product of CRS staff serve Congress members and staff only, or does it rightfully belong to the public. In fact, though insider seekers of truth had routes to the motherlode access was a practice more honored in the breach than in the practice.

Here’s how Wikipedia describes the less-than-free flow of information https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congressional_Research_Service_reports.  And that has been the practice for decades.

Until last week when access advocates announced that there is a light at the end of the legislative tunnel.  Members of the House Appropriations Committee passed the legislative branch appropriations bill which includes “strong language” mandating that all non-confidential CRS reports be made publicly available.” Though no legislative initiative is ever “over till it’s over” hopes are high that the full House will concur and that the Senate will pass a companion bill.  With all due respect to CRS and the virtue of solid research and truth-telling, this bill will probably not make headlines or warrant a filibuster.  And yet, in the current environment, access to authoritative, unbiased, current information matters more than ever!

In his comments on the legislative state of things the American Library Association spokesperson wrote this:

The Committee has debated this issue for several years, and after considering debate and testimony from entities inside the legislative branch and beyond the Committee believes the publishing of CRS reports will not impede CRS’s core mission in any impactful way and is in keeping with the Committee’s priority of full transparency to the American people. Within 90 days of enactment of this act CRS is directed to submit a plan to its oversight committees detailing its recommendations for implementing this effort as well as any associated cost estimates.

The timing is ideal.  As Americans celebrate the 4th with fireworks, parades and picnics this small step for the democracy is a giant step for an informed democracy.  The quantity and quality of CRS reports is beyond belief  – Check out the history of CRS publications here:  https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/

Assuming that this legendary level of quality is allowed and funded to continue, we will be better informed citizens, capable of more informed decision-making.  Something like the forefathers had in mind when they signed their names….

Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.

Abraham Lincoln, 1861

Access-More in the Breach than in the Observance

It is no surprise that virtually all of the talk to and about newly-elected officials focuses on the economy and jobs, jobs, jobs.  One undertone that is too often ignored is the ever-so-subtle issue of the public’s right to information by and about the government.  Two disparate situations bring the latest issue to the surface.  One is the approach to the electoral process evident in the openness of the recent vote count and in plans underway for a potential recount.  The Secretary of State, the election judges, the legacy and alternative press are all at the table, exposing the process and the results.  On the other hand, the doors have remained slammed on the press and public seeking information about the selection of a President for the People’s University.  It’s time to aim the spotlight at an issue too often relegated to the closet.

One basic reality is that open government enjoys a special place in history as a nonpartisan issue, articulated by the founding fathers (who disagreed about just about everything) as a fundamental tenets of the democracy.  Similarly, the State of Minnesota has a distinguished and nonpartisan history of nonpartisan support for open government and informed popular.  In spite of this proud heritage open government is currently more honored in the breach than in the observance.

To a great extent it’s change rather than malicious intent that poses the threat.

  • Because the President has positioned his administration as a vocal proponent of open access, the inclination on the part of the other party may be to turn a deaf ear.  In fact,
  • The first change is in the newness as much as the politics of newly-elected decision-makers.  Access to information is an extraordinarily complex political arena in which experience, institutional memory and practice balancing forces are not infused but shaped by time on task.  Elected officials, incoming administrators, fledgling staffers and others who forge the information chain are often new to the game, newer still to the nuances of public policy relating to information.  In the current information environment mastery of the tools far outstrips attention to policy implications of technology.
  • Second, the information chain itself is in flux bordering chaos.  The inexorable march of information and ideas from decision-maker to constituent, agency to consumer, candidate to the public is cast aside as information – and misinformation – pulsates through the “pipes”, favoring those who own and understand the tools, disenfranchising those for whom time, geography, skill, finances and other incidentals present insurmountable barriers.  Agencies live is solitary splendor while the floodgates open to horizontal flows that ignore and supercede traditional organizational structures.
  • Third, the decline of investigative journalism has had a devastating effect on an informed public.  The  journalists, print and electronic, who bore a heavy responsibility/  They served the public good by ferreting out the truth, researching the record, separating fact from fiction, poking and probing, digesting and deliberating  – then producing information that makes sense to the reader, listener or viewer .   As their ranks  twindle there is a scramble to fill the void and a desperate search for a viable replacement model able to enhance public understanding rather than drivel.
  • Fourth, though ignorance of the law may be no excuse, it nonetheless persists.  Those who need to know often do not know their rights.  Public and nonprofit agencies face critical challenges that cry out for immediate resource allocation.
  • Finally, though current laws need constant review and tweaking, the base is firm;  transparency is recognized as a basic right.  As technology presents both possibilities and pitfalls existing laws deserve review and revision.  More importantly, implementation of laws and policies requires specific attention to oversight by responsible agencies at every level.  Again, it’s one of those implicit tasks that is so basic it can be neglected in deference to issues that are more dire, more doable or more politically persuasive.

Though undeniable and non-controversial, the basics are implicit and thus overlooked:

ü      Every Minnesotan has a RIGHT TO INFORMATION  BY AND ABOUT THE GOVERNMENT.

ü      That right is stated with clarity in legislation and regulation.

ü      Responsibility for oversight is sometimes unclear, more often buried in or blurred the bureaucracy

ü      Organizations and agencies that provide services to the public have an urgent responsibility to affirm that right and to provide the tools, skills and attitudes essential to an informed citizenry.  I

ü      The priority is to affirm and internalize the fact that an understanding of access must join the roster of essentials for elected officials, bureaucracies, nonprofits, schools, communities and families.

ü      Information, alone among public goods, does not diminish but expands with use.

ü      Sound information policy, combined with attention to implementation of that policy, is not a cost but a long-term investment.

It is at our individual and political peril that we ignore the basics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Open government enjoys a special place in history as a nonpartisan issue, articulated by the founding fathers as one of the fundamental tenets of the democracy.  In spite of this proud heritage open government is currently more honored in the breach than in the observance.  To a great extent it’s change rather than malicious intent that poses the threat.

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.

Patch on the Move

Sooner rather than later AOL’s Patch is making mighty leaps in this direction.  Just as the company is launching its 100th site, Patch, the hyper-local web-based news machine, will start showing up in an additional 500 communities this year.  AOL’s strategy is to restructure as a destination for a range of hyper-local content.

Reuters reports that Jon Brod, executive VP for AOL Local and a Patch founder, anticipates that, as legacy media falters there is chasm of quality information at the community level.  According to ReutersPatch is just one part of AOL’s content offering, which also includes Seed, a platform that relies on user-generated material on popular topics, and several popular topic-specific sites like Engadget, which is dedicated to consumer electronics and tech gadgets.”

As noted in a previous blog, keep an eye on Patch – and its siblings — no doubt coming soon to your community, especially if you live in an upper-income burb.

My earlier Patch post

Rummaging in the US Government’s Attic

As an inveterate rummager I take unending delight in this uber blog, a powerful if understated blog that aims to provide “fascinating historical documents, reports on items in the news, oddities and fun stuff and government bloopers.”

Properly outfitted with the Freedom of Information Act a volunteer crew scavenge relentlessly in federal public documents heretofore hidden from public view.  They then post the most delicious government communications, reports and other documents on www.governmentattic.org.

For those of us who just can’t get enough, they manage a dynamic email distribution system that lights up the mailbox 2-3 times every week.  And that’s a lot of us.  The site does no marketing, is run by volunteers, and averages about 6000 unique users and 190 GB of downloads per month.

Forget the dusty holiday decorations, the kids’ broken toys, the wicker baskets and the bent spoons – go instead for some of this snippet listing of long-hidden treasures posted within the past few days on Government Attic.org.  Don’t stop here – poke around!   It’s like this EVERY week – rain or shine!  A rummage sale not to be missed but to be savored