Tag Archives: Sunshine Week

Transparency at the Top – National Security Archive Offers “Constructive Criticism” to Federal Agencies

A passion for access to government information may be an acquired taste, acquired by a select view.  Still, an informed public depends on the hundreds of journalists, public servants, watchdog agencies, librarians, scholars and others meeting this week in our Nation’s Capitol during Sunshine Week to advocate for transparency throughout the federal government.  A host of public pronouncements and discussions reflect how the federal government is living up to the Administration’s commitment to transparency.   Though most of us will never file a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request, it matters that FOIA is in place and that someone cares.

The National Security Archive, one of the major watchdog agencies in DC, is out today with their critical assessment of transparency circa 2013.  The title of their report sets the tone:  Freedom of information Regulations: Still Outdated, Still Undermining Openness.

According to the NSA report “the majority of [federal] agencies have not updated FOIA rules to meet either Obama’s 2009 Order or Congress’s 2007 Law.”  The assessment is based on a survey of 100 federal agencies conducted by the NSA.

Anticipating progress on transparency in the second Obama Administration the NSA offers a checklist of “Top Ten Best FOIA Practices” for agencies to work off as they update their frequently outdated regulations.  Basically, the best practices promote direct communication between agencies and requesters, eliminate foot-dragging and other delays, make the entire process itself more transparent and incorporate an appeals process.

NSA itself maintains a lively website tracking requests and progress in opening the files of the federal government to the public.  The Archive blog, Unredacted, offers a regular – and fascinating – glimpse into what an informed public needs to know.

Sunshine Week Report: One Step at a Time Towards True Tansparency

In the spirit of Sunshine Week 2013 the government watchdog leader, Open the Government,  issued today a major evaluation of the Obama Administration’s National Action Plan for Open Government.   The report assesses the Administration’s implementation of the first National Action Plan for open government.   That Plan (NAP) outlining the nation’s commitments was presented in September 2011 at the launch of the Open Government Partnership.  That Plan covered numerous issues including FOIA processing, records management, spending transparency and accountability.

Today’s report looks at the degree to which the federal government has met the letter of its commitments.  Findings are based on input from volunteers at 37 civil society organizations and academic institution.   Evaluators were asked to rate the government’s efforts to collaborate with civil society organizations, steps towards addressing civil society recommendations, and the impact and sustainability of the government’s efforts.

Bottom line, the report concludes that the government met most of the NAP’s commitments, noting that “many of the commitments were small first steps towards addressing issues.”   Based on that finding, the report calls on the federal government to take more assertive steps to “achieve the greater goal of transforming government to be open and accountable to the public.”  To do so, the report argues for the urgency of a second and bolder plan.

The report makes the point that many of the steps in the original NAP were timid, at times reflective of projects and programs already in place or underway.  Further, the report urges that those involved in preparation of a second National Action Plan open the process itself so that the input from the public and agencies be made public as the plan is developed.

The report goes on to recommend benchmarks and assistance for participating agencies that have less experience with planning for and implementing robust transparency plans.  An interesting note included in the report suggests that the US look beyond its borders for ideas.  Though the U.S. was first among nations to launch an aggressive engagement process, scores of other countries have followed that model to make commitments and to reach out to the public and civil society for input.  The U.S. should learn from other nations.

Above all, the 50+page report calls on the Obama Administration, broadly defined, to BE BOLD!  An implicit message is that the Open Government Partnership is available assistant in a process that will be closely monitored.

 

 

 

 

James Madison – Constitutional Anchor for the Digital Age

This reflection on James Madison was written several years ago in observance of Freedom of Information Day.  Because the influence of Madison seems to have faded from the limelight in recent Freedom of Information observances, it seems right and just to dust off the tribute so we remain vigilant to preserve our principles of open government in this digital age.  MT

We may know James Madison, born March 16, 1751, as “Father of the Constitution”, the president whose home got torched during the War of 1812, or husband of the delightful Dolley.  On the anniversary of his birth we honor him with an annual Freedom of Information celebration in which a network of advocacy groups throughout the nation take part.

The reason why is expressed in the following quote:  Madison observed that “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both.  Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

We take seriously Madison’s wise counsel, with focus on the means of acquiring “popular information.”  We cherish a free press.  We condemn book burning and censorship.  We pass laws that ensure open meetings and government transparency.

Likewise, we honor Madison’s confidence that “knowledge will forever govern ignorance” and operate on the principle that, when truth and falsehood are allowed to grapple freely, truth will win out.

We the people honor Madison by attending with equal diligence to his admonition to “arm” ourselves with the power which knowledge gives.”  Madison, an inveterate learner, devoured veritable libraries from his own collection and from tomes on loan from Jefferson.  Madison’s “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederation,” an examination of factors that either facilitate or inhibit good government, embodies his conviction that the decision-maker armed with knowledge will prevail.

One meaningful way to celebrate Madison’s birthday is to make a serious individual effort to “get up and do what needs to be done” to ferret out reliable information, examine facts, share ideas with those who agree, and listen with equanimity to ideas with which we vehemently disagree.

With the other founders, Madison helped establish a set of principles and practices by which “a people who mean to be their own governors” might do so.  On Madison’s birthday, Saturday March 16, we recognize the necessity of popular attention to a perpetual need – public access to public information.  Though the devil may be in the detail of how that works out in today’s political, economic and polarized environment, Madison’s resolute and resilient commitment to an informed democracy offers the possibility of common ground that fosters responsible governance.

 

 

Rays of Hope from Sunshine Week 2013

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.

 

 

James Madison, Father of the First Amendment

We may know James Madison, born March 16, 1751, as “Father of the Constitution”, the president whose home got torched during the War of 1812, or husband of the delightful Dolley.  On the anniversary of his birth we honor him with an annual Freedom of Information celebration in which a network of advocacy groups throughout the national take part.

 

The reason why is expressed in the following quote:  Madison observed that “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a face or a tragedy; or perhaps both.  Knowledge will forever government ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

 

We take seriously Madison’s wise counsel, with focus on the means of acquiring “popular information.”  We cherish a free press.  We condemn book burning and censorship.  We pass laws that ensure open meetings and government transparency.

 

Likewise, we honor Madison’s confidence that “knowledge will forever govern ignorance” and operate on the principle that, when truth and falsehood are allowed to grapple freely, truth will win out.

 

We the people honor Madison by attending with equal diligence to his admonition to “arm” ourselves with the power which knowledge gives.”  Madison, an inveterate learning, devoured veritable libraries from his own collection and from tomes on loan from Jefferson.  Madison’s “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederation,”  an examination of factors that either facilitate or inhibit good government, embodies his conviction that the decision-maker armed with knowledge will prevail.

 

One meaningful way to celebrate Madison’s birthday is to make a serious individual effort to “get up and do what needs to be done” to ferret out reliable information, examine facts, share ideas with those who agree, and listen with equanimity to ideas with which we vehemently disagree.

 

With the other founders, Madison helped establish a set of principles and practices by which “a people who mean to be their own governors” might do so.  On Madison’s birthday, Friday March 16, we recognize the necessity of popular attention to a perpetual need – public access to public information.  Though the devil may be in the detail of how that is works out in today’s political, economic and polarized environment, Madison’s resolute and resilient commitment to an informed democracy offers the possibility of common ground that fosters responsible governance.

Sunshine Week 2012

As most policy wonks probably don’t know, the March 11-17 is Sunshine Week (http://www.sunshineweek.org)/. Since Sunshine Week was launched in 2005 by newspaper organizations the initiative has grown to a national network of organizations that represent a wide range of professional and public interest groups with a activities at the ground level in states, cities and organizations throughout the nation. Since the outset focus has been on celebration of Freedom of Information Day on March 16, birth date of James Madison, framer and author of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Theme for this year is “Put Sunshine in your government.” In the interest of putting sunshine in our government it seems appropriate stop carping and pause to reflect on some of the positives that are happening on the open government scene:

  • Lori Sturdevant sets the pace by cautiously anticipating the possibility of bipartisan agreement on HF 1954, IR Re. Keith Downey’s attempt to get cities and counties to report their spending to the public in a clearer and more meaningful way.  Sure, the parties took it as a challenge to spar, even on open government for which there is no price tag;  still, Sturdevant concludes that “even baby steps” count. (Star Tribune, March 9, 2012)
  • Independent journalists and bloggers have added zillions of eyes and ears to the oversight of federal, state and local government – even neighborhood organizations don’t escape the oversight and the reporting proclivities of avid action watchers.  Their numbers are legion – some work independently, others through organized grassroots journalism such as the Twin Cities Daily Planet (www.tcdailyplanet.net)

Public meetings in virtually every community are available for armchair citizens who keep tabs on elected and appointed officials at work.

  • Again following Lori Sturdevant’s lead, this is a time to celebrate Minnesota’s state demographers, past and future – Hazel Reinhart, Tom Gillaspy and Susan Brower. (Star Tribune, March 7, 2012)
  • The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information will participate in Sunshine Week a bit after the fact by sponsoring a related event on Friday March 23.   Amy Goodman will speak at the annual FOI Award Ceremony during which the John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award will be presented.  The free and open event is 4:00 p.m. at Minneapolis Central Library.
  • At the federal level a unique positive note this week was the launch of Ethics.gov(one more step in the administration’s pledge to let the sunshine in.
  • Americans who rightfully pride ourselves on the constitutional right to know are often surprised on the freedom of information ferment on nations around the world – FOI-Net  offers a dependable reminder that this nation is not alone and, in many cases, is not ahead in the effort to let the sunshine in.

Though this list should go on to name scores, probably hundreds of advocacy efforts, the word limit is enforced.   Advocates of every stripe, including open government and freedom of information proponents, are inclined to decry government’s infringement on openness.  Still, Sunshine Week offers a reminder to celebrate that sunshine often does prevail.

For all of us, Sunshine Week presents a challenge to acknowledge that decision-makers, bureaucrats and advocates alike grapple with unprecedented challenges to craft laws, regulations, procedures and policies, appropriate to an unprecedented information environment in which principles remain while technology, not to mention globalization, transforms the landscape.

Sunshine Week Openthegovernment Conference Now Online

In weeks past I have written about my opportunity to participate in Sunshine Week activities in Washington, DC.  It’s a busy week with a couple of key highlights.  One is Freedom of Information Day, March 16, the birth date of freedom of information advocate James Madison.

The second major activity of Sunshine Week is a national webcast and open meeting; that event, held March 18 at the Center for American Progress, was sponsored by OpentheGovernment.  Theme for this year’s webcast was “The Road Forward on Open Government.” I was in the audience (actually with the awesome responsibility of holding up the time limit cards…) and was so wishing other advocates had the same opportunity.  Now you do – almost.

The OpentheGovernment webcast is now available online.  Speakers and panelists included, among others, Steven Croley, Special Assistant to the President for Justice and Regulatory Policy, White House Domestic Policy Council, David S. Ferriero, Archivest of the United States, and Gary Bass, Executive Director (until July 1) of OMB Watch.  Patrice McDermott, Director of OpentheGovernment moderates a great panel of journalists and other access advocates.

The transcript and video are  available on C-SPAN.  Clips and the full conference are also on Facebook.