If you hear people talking a lot about “sunshine” this week, they may not be talking about pleasant spring weather. Instead, they could be talking about Sunshine Week, an annual event calling for a dialogue about transparency in government and freedom of information.
Set every year during the week containing March 16, Sunshine Week commemorates the birthday of checks-and-balances advocate President James Madison. Now in its eleventh year, it is scheduled to run March 13-19, with events, articles, and social media outreach on Facebook and Twitter. It is sponsored by American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
A major component of Sunshine Week is the Freedom of Information Act, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. “It took 144 years for the American people to begin to arm themselves with palpable knowledge about their government,” writes Charles Lewis, from American University. “After many, many years of earnest organizing efforts by various public-interest organizations—in 1966 Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which has been subsequently amended many times.”
One way to make government records more accessible is to simply put them online. For example, online filing requirements have made it easier for the public to see where political contributions come from, writes Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. “U.S. Senators still print their disclosure reports and send the paper documents to the Secretary of the Senate, who submits them to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which pays a contractor to type the information into a database,” he writes, at a cost of more than $500,000 a year. “This archaic method is used by highly sophisticated campaigns that routinely apply advanced software to track and solicit donors.”
Fortunately, the FEC is making changes. “The FEC is finally upgrading its campaign-finance data and website, making information easily available via Application Programming Interfaces that let data flow seamlessly from one computer to another,” Bender writes. “This is a welcome improvement.”
Indeed, by giving the public more access to information, government can get better results by crowdsourcing the process, write city manager James Keene and CIO Jonathan Reichental, both of Palo Alto, Calif. “Let’s face it, the technology needs of cities and agencies in general far outstrip available IT budgets, staff capacity, and available skillsets. If we continue to rely on our own teams and budgets, we’ll continue to disappoint our city staff and community members,” they write. “Give community members the problems, the data, and subject-matter-expertise, and let them try to solve a core problem.”
Making government data more accessible doesn’t have to be expensive, adds Brian Platt, director of the Office of Innovation for Jersey City, N.J., which launched its open data portal a year ago with “raw data Excel files, some relevant PDFs of other information often requested by the public, and some basic maps (created using Google Maps),” he writes. “It launched with no additional cost to the city or taxpayers, using currently existing platforms and free tools. We didn’t hire any coders or programmers, and we didn’t purchase any new software.”
Platt is the first to admit the portal is still a work in process. “The initial datasets did not capture infinitely granular data. Some information was missing. Some datasets were more useful than others. Some data just wasn’t available or reasonably collected using manual Excel processes,” he writes. However, the key was that Jersey City had finally started moving in a positive direction towards transparency. “For us, it was better to have something done that provided some level of improvement and impact instead of waiting for everything to be perfect, which would mean the task would never be completed at all,” he notes.
Progress aside, open government still has a long way to go, Lewis writes. “Today more than 4 million Americans have national security clearances, and in 2010 alone, according to The New York Times, the Obama administration classified 77 million documents, up 44 percent from the year before,” all of which are no longer subject to the FOIA. Other figures say there’s even more Americans with such clearances—as many as 4.5 million, according to one report.
And while governments have saved money and become more efficient due to outsourcing, that also makes it more challenging for citizens to gain access to the information. “There are nearly four times more federal contractors, about 7.5 million, doing the business of government than actual traditional government employees,” Lewis writes. (In fact, it could be more; the Congressional Budget Office admitted last year that it didn’t actually know how many federal government contractors there were.) “Contractors are often managing other contractors. Not only do the FOIA laws not apply to them, neither do federal government ethics laws.”
The sunshine might be coming in, but it’s not summer yet.
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