Below are the opinion columns that were offered to participants during Sunshine Week 2015. Please note that they may only be used now with the express, direct consent of the author(s).
An Inconvenient Truth: Open Government Requires Transparency. By U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa): “Sunshine Week offers custodians of the people’s business a good reminder that government officials are caretakers of hard-earned tax dollars, public entitlement programs and public resources. Whether employees are protecting national and homeland security or implementing food, drug and aviation safety laws, transparency helps pull back the bureaucratic curtain and educate the citizenry. Civic engagement is key to self-government. The more people know what is going on in government, the better for our free and open society.” Read more.
Building a Stronger Democracy Through Government Transparency. By U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.): “In time to truly honor the spirit of Sunshine Week this year, Congress has a chance to reaffirm its commitment to transparency by passing our bipartisan FOIA Improvement Act of 2015. It would codify the policy President Obama issued in his 2009 memorandum by requiring federal agencies to adopt a ‘Presumption of Openness’ when considering the release of government information under FOIA.” Read more.
Lawmakers Attack Transparency. By Edwin Bender, Executive Director, National Institute on Money in State Politics: “Transparency can nurture a culture of trust in our elected representatives, further an understanding that government serves important functions for citizens, and provide a measure of accountability. When the flow of information about our elections, our government, and our democracy is curtailed, we’re nurturing a culture of mistrust and cynicism.” Read more.
The Importance of Ensuring Government Contractor Transparency. By Donald Cohen, Executive Director, In the Public Interest: “This week, nonprofits, civic groups, and media organizations are observing Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote dialogue about the importance of open government and celebrate the freedom of information in our democracy. While much discussion is focused squarely on the need for transparency when government spends public funds, equally important is the need for transparency when government contractors spend public funds. All tax dollars are equal and so should be the transparency of how those dollars are spent, whether directly by a public agency or by a contractor on that agency’s behalf.” Read more.
World Passing the U.S. by in Strength of FOI Laws. By David Cuillier, director, University of Arizona School of Journalism, and chairman, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee: “Sunshine Week has helped foster government transparency in the United States during the past 10 years, but while we have focused inward at state and federal transparency the world has passed us by.” Read more.
Surveillance, Bodycams and … Aretha Franklin. By Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director, NYS Department of State, Committee on Open Government, Albany: “Accountability, privacy, safety and protecting the public are goals easy to express, but in today’s surveillance society, nobody has all the answers. That’s why the ‘Aretha Franklin Principle’ is so relevant. No it’s not R-E-S-P-E-C-T, the instant response of most. It’s ‘You Better Think.’ We’d all better think before diving headfirst into what clearly will create a series of issues and problems.” Read more.
Posting FOIA Releases Online Saves Agencies Time and Money. By Lauren Harper, FOIA Expert, National Security Archive: “The silver lining of the Hillary Clinton email debacle is that the Department of State is well positioned to post all of Clinton’s emails online for the public to view after it reviews them for release. Unfortunately, according to a government-wide FOIA audit conducted by the National Security Archive to celebrate Sunshine Week, the majority of federal agencies are not so well situated.” Read more.
Next Disaster Government Prevents With Openness May Be Its Own. By John Hughes, President, National Press Club, and David Cuillier, Chairman, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee: “Since the nation’s founding, free speech has been crucial to a well-functioning democracy. An important part of free speech is the ability of employees of the government, as well as other entities funded by taxpayers, to tell the public through the press what’s going on. When leaders block that avenue, they hurt democracy and potentially let problems fester.” Read more.
Go Ahead, Take Closed Government Personally. By Brian Hunhoff, Opinion Writer, Yankton County Observer: “Don’t take it personally? That’s usually good advice, but today we urge the opposite reaction to all government bodies operating in the shadows, purposely avoiding public scrutiny and genuine transparency. In other words, take closed government personally. Please!” Read more.
Unnecessary Freedom of Information Act Fees. By Nate Jones, Director, Freedom of Information Act Project, National Security Archive: “This Sunshine Week, it’s important to recognize that FOIA fee barriers are not isolated incidents. The Federal FOIA Advisory Committee, made up of government and non-government members including myself, has identified fees as the most frequently contentious issue in the FOIA process for those both inside and outside government.” Read more.
A Media Conspiracy That’s Good for You. By Eric Newton, Senior Adviser to the President, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation: “Each spring for 10 years now, a vast media conspiracy has rolled across the hills and plains of this nation. Journalists of every stripe – cartoonists to commentators to hard news reporters – have been in on it. And not just journalists, but politicians, educators and librarians, as well as members of nonprofits and civic groups. What’s the conspiracy? It’s called Sunshine Week, and it is built around the birthday of James Madison, the father of the Bill of Rights.” Read more.
Greater Transparency Can Improve U.S. Security Assistance Programs. By Abigail Poe,Deputy Director, Center for International Policy, and Director, CIP’s Security Assistance Monitor; and William Hartung, Director, CIP’s Arms and Security Project: “Unfortunately, there has been no systematic analysis of what works and what does not work when it comes to the provision of U.S. military aid. In part this is because there are so many programs to keep track of. The Pentagon alone funds and implements 18 weapons and training programs, and it added six more just last year. It is extremely difficult for the public, the media, or most members of Congress to get comprehensive information about these programs – what they cost, what they are designed to do, and whether or not they have been effective. More accountability in military and police aid programs must begin with greater transparency.” Read more.
VA Interest: The Pitfalls of Exempting Working Papers. By Megan Rhyne, Executive Director, Virginia Coalition for Open Government: “[It] is simply unacceptable in a representative democracy to leave the public in the dark about these individuals’ performance. Investigative journalists may be able to help shed some light, but otherwise we’re left with our government officials essentially telling us that we’re going to have to trust them because they aren’t going to show us their records.” Read more.
FOIA Victory Opens Vast Index of Government Data. By Matt Rumsey, Director, Advisory Committee on Transparency, Sunlight Foundation: “One of the central tenets of the open data movement is the need for governments to properly index their information holdings and make those indexes available to the public. Doing so allows both governments and the public to understand the full breadth of government data, enabling better data management and more informed discussions about how the government prioritizes releasing data.” Read more.
Real Digital Inclusion: A Challenge for Transparency Advocates. By Mary Treacy, “Poking Around with Mary”: “Clearly, advocates for open government must be in the front lines in the drive to expand the concept of digital inclusion to encompass the needs and potential of people with mental and physical challenges. Information by and about the government belongs to all the people; it is the responsibility of government at every level to embrace the potential of technology to remove barriers to access.” Read more.
Congress Must Pass FOIA Reform and the President Must Endorse It. By Sean Vitka, Federal Policy Manager, Sunlight Foundation: “While Sunshine Week is about transparency writ large, there’s arguably no single bigger piece of that foundational American value than the Freedom of Information Act. FOIA uncovered details of the torture that occurred at Guantanamo Bay, and led us to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI file on John Lennon, among many, many other cases about government secrecy. But we need an updated FOIA that fits 21st century information needs.” Read more.
Reflections on Sunshine Week. By Mayor Harold Weinbrecht, Cary, N.C.: “March 15-21 is Sunshine Week, a national initiative about the importance of open government and freedom of information. It provides a great opportunity for those of us who work for citizens to ensure everyone knows how strongly committed we are to maintaining a culture of openness and transparency. In Cary, we pride ourselves on transparency; it’s highlighted twice in our Statement of Values and practiced every day.” Read more.
Trade Talks Require a Massive Dose of Sunlight. By Celia Wexler, Senior Washington Representative, Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists: “What If major decisions that will affect Americans’ public health and safety, environment and financial stability were being made right now behind closed doors? And the only substantive information about these decisions came from Wikileaks? What if the only people privy to this inside information have been 566 trade advisors, the overwhelming majority of whom represent corporate interests? You’d expect a large outcry from the U.S. public and the media. But these secret talks are occurring with very little notice or outrage from either journalists or the transparency community in this country.” Read more.
PA Interest: This Week, Celebrate Government Transparency. By Corinna Vecsey Wilson, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition: “Too often, the issue of access to records can be minimized as a media issue. Rhetoric or politics can sometimes obscure the conversation and challenge of establishing a system that helps ensure the principles of open government. In reality, the issue of open records and governmental transparency is a bedrock principle critical to the very real and daily lives of every citizen everywhere, including the great state of Pennsylvania.” Read more.
Public Notices Must Stay in the Sun. By Jim Zachary, Editor of the Valdosta (Ga.) Daily Times and Director of the Transparency Project of Georgia: “State lawmakers are whittling away at Sunshine Laws in multiple ways, not the least of which is the effort to remove requirements to publish public notices in the place where communities are most likely to find important information they want and need to know — in the local newspaper. Efforts to allow local governments the option of placing required public notices on government websites, or on third party sites that bury the information is poor, ill-advised legislation that should be viewed as a threat to and further erosion of government transparency.” Read more.S