Friday, March 31, 2017

Shining a Light on Government

Although Sunshine Week has come and gone, open government, also known as government transparency, is a continuing issue.  Sunshine week is an initiative from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to celebrate, "access to public information and what it means to you and your community."  The focus is on freedom of information services, such as the Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA").  FOIA requests are an important tool for citizens exercising their right to know what the government is doing, who they are doing it with, and why they've decided to take these actions.  

While FOIA is one mechanism for citizens to access information, there have been strides in recent years for government to facilitate the accessibility of government documents and data. The concept of open government and access to government documents was a key component of the Obama administration.  They published their first National Action plan in 2011.  The plans reflected President Obama's "commitment to an open and citizen-centered government."

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has also voiced commitment to transparent government.  He, along with other government officials and attorneys, published a manual detailing the state's Sunshine Laws and relevant court decisions to increase public awareness of open government. 

However, not all administrations support government transparency.  President Trump has not indicated whether he plans to continue or introduce policies for open government or release documents preemptively.  Two bills recently introduced in both the House and Senate propose greater access to records in the Trump administration.  H.R. 1711 the MAR-A-LAGO Act and S. 721 seek the disclosure of visitor access records for the White House, the residence of the Vice President, and "any other location at which the President or the Vice President regularly conducts official business."

When FOIA and legislation fail to uncover the information that a citizen seeks, litigation is another option.  For example, the UW Center for Human Rights filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency ("CIA") in 2015 for the release of declassified documents that were not received by the Center following their FOIA request.  The Center is working to uncover information from the CIA in relation to the Salvadorean civil war and the thousands of people who disappeared during the conflict.  The hope is to bring closure and solace to the families they left behind.

The concept of open government is not limited to documents and records, but data as well.  Even proponents of open government acknowledge there are risks and privacy issues that need to be considered before the broad release of data.  Recently, UW Law Professor Ryan Calo worked with a team of researchers in computer science, information science, and urban studies to write a journal article about the City of Seattle, the implications of data release at the municipal level, and recommendations for the city.  This article was among the first of its kind on this topic.

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