This week we celebrate Sunshine Week, not as a seasonal way to welcome the spring weather, but as a time to mark the importance of transparency in our government.
At the U.S. Helsinki Commission we monitor 56 countries, including the
, to ensure compliance with human rights and other commitments made under the Helsinki Final Act.
A major part of that compliance rests on governments being open and acting transparently – the same focus that is at the heart of the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Sunshine Week.
Practicing open governance is not something countries, states and cities should do because they have to comply with some international agreement or public records law.
Rather, being transparent should be an organic part of providing a democratic government and empowering citizens.
When President Obama began his presidency he called for unprecedented transparency. In his Open Government Directive, he outlined a clear plan for government to become more transparent, participatory and collaborative.
The logic is clear – only through transparency can people gain the knowledge needed to participate and hold their governments accountable. And only if the people participate can government collaborate with them to glean the best ideas.
This directive was bold and action-oriented, but sadly we have not seen the
bureaucracy react with the same swiftness with which this directive was made. Most agencies in fact have not made concrete changes to comply with the directive, according to a government-wide audit released earlier this week by the National Security Archive based at the
It seems for all the White House is doing – disclosing its visitors log, broadcasting policy meetings, increase interactivity through town hall meetings and YouTube interviews — a lot of work remains at the agencies.
Most glaring to me are the delays and in some cases outright denials of Freedom of Information Act requests. I was surprised to learn in the National Security Archive audit that some requests have been pending for 18 years when the law very clearly calls for responses within 20 business days when possible.
Most baffling from the audit may be what files still remain locked in government vaults. For example, today – more than 20 years after the fall of the
wall – the Pentagon still has not responded to a request for records detailing the military’s reaction in 1961 to the building of the Wall.
When it comes to diplomacy, this President and Secretary of State Clinton deserve great praise for the work they have done around the world to strengthen dialogue and improve
relationships abroad. This successful record, however, is slightly tarnished by the Department of State’s efforts on open governance. The Department more than doubled the number of denials it issued to people filing Freedom of Information Act requests last year — the largest increase of any agency except for the Social Security Administration which tripled its denials.
Fourteen months is a short time to change a bureaucracy charged with managing countless records. But a handful of agencies have already shown it’s possible and committed to open government changes. On top of other positive reforms, the Departments of Agriculture and Justice, the Small Business Administration, and the Office of Management and Budget all increased how much information they released and decreased how many requests they denied last year.
These agencies have embraced the spirit of transparency ushered in by President Obama, and as we mark Sunshine Week, I hope others will follow suit with their own innovative ways to increase transparency and spur citizen involvement. And once agencies adopt these practices, I hope they stick with them — not because they fulfill any presidential directive but because they give us a better democracy.