We are told the dark hours of government secrecy are over. This, the Obama administration says, is a new dawn of open government. We will know what they are up to at (almost) all times. The power of the Freedom of Information Act will be outspread. And as the president extends his beam of transparent sunlight, the fields will revive, the birds will renew their singing and bleating herds of government watchdogs will attest their joy: “The whole truth at last!”
Well, that’s one possibility anyway. Though willing administrators and strong legal backing are crucial to facilitating open government, there must also be a third ingredient mixed in if those bureaucratic workings are to be truly transparent: that is keen citizens seeking out the records and documents that will shed the necessary light on what the government, in all its various capacities, is up to. In other words, ordinary citizens need to give a hoot, and with journalists getting fired by the dozen, there is something of a Missourian hoot shortage on the horizon.
The need of this third ingredient was perhaps the most reiterated theme at last week’s inaugural meeting of the Missouri Sunshine Coalition, a group of elected officials, journalists and other proponents of government transparency that was formed to promote openness in the Show-Me state. Missouri is the 47th state to form such a group (only the Dakotas and Nevada are lagging), and the members met Thursday to discuss how they could best enforce and enhance the so-called Sunshine Law, the statewide public policy that outlines what access citizens have to public meetings and records.
To say there is a hoot shortage is not to say that no citizens care. There are many “average” people out there who do give a hoot about government openness, and they are often the ones who uncover misdeeds by putting pressure on officials. Average citizens make more FOIA requests than journalists, but with journalist numbers decreasing, many more non-media-related citizens than are currently fighting for their FOIA rights need to start taking an interest.
It’s not surprising that people don’t jump right into the Sunshine fight. Discussing government transparency often leads to the use of rather soporific phrases; “public records” and “meetings” aren’t exactly sexy, exciting terms that inspire masses to act. And the idea of fighting to get records from the government also elicits images of trying to claw one’s way through layer after layer of tedious red-tape cobwebs.
But the fight is sexier than it may seem at first glance. Requests of public records often lead to uncovering officials’ abuses of power. A Boise mayor, for example, resigned after a journalist requested spending records that showed the official used public money to fly to New York and see a Broadway show, amongst other dubious things. But no one would have ever known if no one had taken the initiative to ask for those records in the first place — and many of the journalists losing their jobs are the ones who do in-depth field reporting, the kind that uncovers such scandals.
Obama made some lofty promises during his first few days in office, saying that “The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known.”
But soon after making those remarks, Obama’s administration refused to release some of the same records, such as those pertaining to behind-the-scenes action in Guantanamo, that Bush’s people became so unpopular for hoarding. And if this does indicate that the “willing administrators” ingredient is less potent than one might hope, that’s all the more reason for people to start asking their government more questions, rather than waiting around for answers.
This week is the fifth annual national Sunshine Week. Five days have been set aside for all American citizens, not just journalists, to ponder the potential glory of open government and think about how we can get more of it. Newspapers, civic groups, libraries and schools will be sponsoring discussions, and editorials will be written by the dozen. The first step in the hoot-giving process is an easy one; be alert this week and give the Sunshine-proponents a bit of your attention.
Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.