Six days after taking office, President Obama issued a memorandum titled “Transparency and Open Government.” Just over a page in length, this document—made unusual by eight years of Bush administration obfuscation—lays out his goal for an administration openly beholden to its people. “Government Should Be Transparent” stipulates the first point. “Government Should Be Participatory,” deems the second. “Government Should Be Collaborative,” declares the third, the president vowing to direct his Chief Technology Officer to work with the Office of Management and Budget to create an Open Government Directive that will allow citizens to better know what their national officials and tax monies are doing on any given day on any given subject.
Of, by and for the people may be our groundwork, but government has not been much of an open secret in the centuries since those words were penned. The fluidity of documents and digitizing of communications should, and now actually will, change all of that if the Obama administration prevails.
But what about local government? How much do we know of the workings of our police and sheriff departments, our public works and mayoral offices, the county clerks and tax departments? Lyndon Johnson’s 1966 Freedom of Information Act (supplemented by Bill Clinton in 1996 to include electronic data) guarantees the rights of citizens to request and review public documents, but have you ever tried to get paperwork that a bureaucrat doesn’t want you to have? Indeed. While the burden is on the department being requested of, not the entity doing the requesting, it has been fallback in the last decade for bureaucrats to initially say no to record requests, causing the requester to state a use for them.
Begun in 2002, National Sunshine Week—this year slated March 15–21—seeks to alert citizens to our right to know what our government does, not only with our money but with our laws and paperwork, in their meetings and discussions. How easy it is to obtain records of nursing home or hospital inspections, bridge safety records, teacher certifications, bids on state projects? We’ll be collecting your stories as you try to make your way through the ordinary government maze, as well as sending our sweet, wide-eyed interns out into dusty government halls to try to pull a few docs of their own. Send word to us at [email protected] and look for our results after March 21.