This week is Sunshine Week, when newspapers and civic watchdogs remind public officials that their paramount duty is to the citizens, not to their own self-interest. That duty is best carried out openly and transparently, not hidden behind closed doors and secret documents.
That reminder is badly needed, if action in the Legislature is any indication.
Proposed bills that would have made state and local government more transparent have already died. Now the Washington Coalition for Open Government is just playing defense against several bills designed to obstruct the public’s right to know.
The bill with the most life in it is House Bill 1651, which passed the House and is now under consideration in the state Senate. It would make it harder for the media and the public to provide oversight of the juvenile justice system and to keep it accountable. The Senate should reject it.
Transparency is also regularly thwarted at the federal level. Despite President Barack Obama’s pledge that his administration would be the most open in history, two studies show that hasn’t been the case.
Analysis of records requests by The Associated Press found that government fully rejected more that a third – a slight increase over 2011. Many rejections were based on a national security exemption, yet the administration is increasingly using the Freedom of Information Act’s “deliberative process” exception in order to withhold records. That exception – which refers to the decision-making process – is supposed to be used less, according to an Obama directive. But in fact its use has significantly increased in the last two years.
Another troubling finding by The AP: Some agencies are taking longer to answer requests. Even urgent ones that are supposed to be fast-tracked due to breaking news or when a person’s life is at stake took the State Department an average of two years to provide files.
Another study by a liberal watchdog group also found fault with the administration’s openness. The Center for Effective Government found that the White House labeled documents as classified even when they didn’t need to be and aggressively prosecuted whistle-blowers. It brought twice as many cases against those suspected of leaks (six) than had been brought in the previous 96 years.
Although some agencies have embraced open government – the center cited the National Aeronautical and Space Administration – others have made no improvements or even taken steps backward. No one is designated at the federal level to implement the president’s promise of more transparency. In a twist of irony, an interagency group meets regularly on the subject – but records of those meetings are not available.
Less than four years remain for Obama to make good on his pledge of greater transparency. We’ll provide an update on his progress next Sunshine Week.