Open Government is Good Government

By Kevin M. Goldberg

Sunshine Week starts Sunday. This 11th annual celebration of open government runs March 13-19 and offers everyone the opportunity to participate in a broad dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

sunshineweekThe outgrowth of “Sunshine Sunday,” the brainchild of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, Sunshine Week started as a single day event before expanding to an entire week in 2005. It is always timed to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, the fourth president of the United States and an early supporter of free speech and freedom of information.

Since then, Sunshine Week has expanded from its origin as a single-state event to an international phenomenon, and from a media-centric event to one which invites participation by advocacy organizations across the political spectrum, citizen groups, educational institutions and even government.

Now coordinated by the American Society of News Editors (full disclosure:  ASNE is one of my longstanding clients) and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the week is marked by a wide variety of activities.  This is another example of Sunshine Week’s expansion:  whereas the original Sunshine Sunday events and early Sunshine Week focused on editorials, op-eds and news stories about open government, participants have gotten incredibly creative in recent years.

Yes, newspapers still write articles and editorials, radio and television talk shows still run PSAs and have transparency experts on air to talk open government. But there’s so much more. Newspapers now engage in larger investigative reporting projects; one favorite is to choose a state or federal agency to “audit” for compliance with the relevant public records laws.  Community organizations regularly hold conferences or public forums featuring discussions on matters of interest to the local community.  Others may give out awards for stellar contributions to open government.

Legislators often use Sunshine Week as a time to introduce bills or hold hearings – or even votes – on legislation improving public records or open meetings laws. Executive branch agencies will host their own events showing their dedication to implementing these laws.

The Internet and social media have definitely been a game changer:  Virtual town halls have occurred, Twitter chats and tweetups bring together people from around the country.

There are also interesting social activities. In 2014, Access Humboldt in California held a “Sunshine Week Potluck Mixer” where every attendee brought a dish to share. The year before that, several DC-based groups held a Sunshine Week happy hour. Not to be outdone, the Madison, Wisconsin chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2015 collaborated with a local brewery known as “Next Door Brewing” to create “Sunshine Wheat” beer – the first beer promoting Sunshine Week.

The 2016 version of Sunshine Week promises to be the best ever. You can find a list of planned activities on the “Events” page of the Sunshine Week website. Check it out to see if there’s anything happening in your area.

Not content with tagging along?  Media organizations  can dip into the free “Toolkit” for content including opinion and editorial columns, cartoons, icons that can be used to identify stories relying on open records and, because it’s an election year, questions that can be asked of candidates running for federal office. There’s special material available for Schools and Colleges as well.

Finally the “Idea Bank” may spur you on to something new – or at least never been tried in your community.  If you’re new to this whole thing or otherwise uncertain, maybe just start by following the Sunshine Week Twitter account (@SunshineWeek).

But remember, Sunshine Week should be more than just a week. Ideally, it’s a jumping off point for a commitment to open government year round.

Editor’s Note: Kevin Goldberg, chairman of the NPF Board of directors, is a member of Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth, PLC. His expertise is in First Amendment, copyright and trademark issues, especially those relating to newspaper and Internet publishing.