It’s Not a “News Media” Thing, It’s a “You and Me” Thing

By Kevin M. Goldberg

Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of open government starts Sunday, March 12, and runs through Saturday, March 18. I wrote about Sunshine Week before last year’s event. (In my day job I am legal counsel to, among others, the American Society of News Editors, the organization that started Sunshine Week and now serves as co-coordinator with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.)

kevin-goldbergThere might be an inclination to dismiss Sunshine Week and the concepts of open government and transparency generally as “something only the media and journalists care about.”  Anyone who takes that view, does so at his or her own peril – perhaps literally. In fact, it is often said that “transparency is the bedrock of democracy” because it is our ability to obtain information about our leaders and directly participate in our own governance — be it at the local, state or federal level — that allows our society to function.

Perhaps most people relate “open government” with the Freedom of Information Act or “FOIA” as it is commonly known and most of what they know about FOIA tends to be from news stories relying on the use of records obtained through the federal FOIA or a state counterpart.  Hence, the quick association between journalists and FOIA. But did you know that journalists are only the third largest users of the federal FOIA, filing about 10 percent of all FOIA requests per year? The perception that open records are for journalists might derive from the publicity surrounding journalists’ use of FOIA. But, even in that sense, the federal FOIA or state public records laws are primarily used by journalists to benefit the public and keep us safe.  For every story relying on government records to report on an “inside the beltway” issue, there are more that address matters of public concern to local communities. These are often health and safety issues. Don’t believe me?  Check out the “FOIA Files”, a database of more than 700 stories that relied on the federal FOIA, including:

  • As Associated Press story written in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans which demonstrated that 122 other levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers were in jeopardy of failing;
  • An interactive database created by MSNBC in 2008 identifying more than 17,000 bridges nationwide that had not been inspected in the previous two years;
  • A 2015 story from ProPublica detailing the improper management of blood medications which led to 165 injuries in nursing homes.

These stories led to remedial and preventive measures which may have saved someone you know, someone you love, or even you and me.

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Open government means more than open records. Open meetings are a large component of transparency and a key tool for citizens to have their voices heard immediately, especially at the local level. In my city of residence, Washington, D.C., there are a significant number of agencies, boards and commissions, all of whom take regular action that affect my daily life. The D.C. Open Government Coalition (more disclosure: I am a member of the DCOGC Board of Directors and its immediate past president) has regularly audited the largest of these agencies to ensure that they are complying with the requirements of the city’s Open Meetings Act. Among the findings of an audit of 24 agencies from September 2013 through July 2014:

  • Three public bodies posted no meeting information on the internet at all.
  • Eleven public bodies posted meeting agendas on a regular basis but 10 posted no agendas or did so irregularly.
  • Only about half of the public bodies posted a full meeting record (via recording or transcript) online for later review by interested parties who could not attend.

The agencies covered by this audit included the Board of Medicine, the Alcohol Beverage Control Board, the State Board of Education, and the Police Complaints Board.  These agencies have a direct impact on public health and safety matters affecting children, families and all residents.

Hopefully I have convinced you that open government benefits everyone. It logically follows, then, that Sunshine Week is something we should participate in and celebrate.  And that is abundantly possible.  As this year’s Sunshine Week calendar notes, events occur all over the country; they are not organized by journalists or journalism groups but by citizens and community organizations.

Take a look. If there’s not something in your local area, there is plenty happening online. It’s also not too late to create your own event. Join me and our fellow citizens in celebrating open government!

Kevin M. Goldberg, an attorney at Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth LLC, is chairman of the National Press Foundation.