Founder, Opinion in a Pinch
Amid all the doom and gloom about government secrecy that we hear during Sunshine Week, let’s take a moment to appreciate that Americans have unprecedented of access to their government.
A couple of months ago, my family’s dinner conversation turned toward Oregon’s physician assisted suicide law called Death with Dignity. (It’s been a rough year for the family.) We wondered how many people get prescriptions for the drug cocktail and of those who do, how many actually wind up taking it.
A quick search on my smartphone found the Oregon Health Authority’s annual report. Last year, 249 people received prescriptions, and 168 people died after ingesting the drugs. Most were 65 or older, and most had cancer.
It was sunshine in action.
Government transparency is an ongoing battle. Preserving it requires vigilance from the press, from advocates and activists, and from the public. Look away even for a moment, and public officials will find new ways to keep the people in the dark.
In Washington State, the Legislature for more than a year has tried to exempt itself from the state’s Public Records Act. In Missouri, lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to keep constituent communications confidential. And in Florida, lawmakers want to seal records related to mass shootings, among several dozen public records exemptions proposed this year.
It’s hard to find any state legislature that doesn’t consider creating new secrets every time they get together.
The federal government is just as problematic. The Trump administration is no friend to open government, and neither was the Obama administration.
Meanwhile, the press itself is in a funk. The organizers of Sunshine Week want this year’s event to be a wake for the newspaper industry. Thousands of newspapers have closed in the past 20 years. Tens of thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. Without them, government is under less scrutiny, and that isn’t healthy for democracy.
All true, and a sad message the media shares year-round.
Instead of woe-is-us, though, let’s remember that there is a lot of sunlight shining on government. This week is supposed to be “the annual nationwide celebration of access to public information and what it means for you and your community.”
So let’s celebrate.
We’ve had wins for transparency in the past year. That effort by the Washington Legislature died twice when Washingtonians and press organizations rallied against secrecy.
The Congressional Research Service, after years of pressure, finally started to release its excellent reports publicly.
And news organizations across the country forced local officials to come clean about myriad topics like public school pensions in Pennsylvania, air pollution along the California-Mexico border and sexual harassment among Georgia state employees.
The thing most worth celebrating, though, is the baseline transparency that exists today.
Governments at all levels provide a tremendous amount of information without the need for a formal public records request. People in many states can watch legislative hearings via livestream or archived on an official site. Bills in statehouses and Congress are online, usually with tracking records so people can learn who sponsored what and when the vote might be. And agency reports – like Oregon’s Death with Dignity annual report – are out there for anyone to review.
Thank the Internet in large part for that expansive access. This wasn’t possible 30 years ago, let alone 100. Digital technology is not just an enabler, though. It also has changed how people think about government and secrecy. Americans view transparency as a fundamental right.
People today understand better than ever that Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was right when he wrote more than a century ago, “Light is the only thing that can sweeten our political atmosphere – light thrown upon every detail of administration in the departments; light diffused through every passage of policy; light blazed full upon every feature of legislation; light that can penetrate every recess or corner in which any intrigue might hide; light that will open to view the innermost chambers of government, drive away all darkness from the treasury vaults.”
Challenges remain, but transparency is winning. Happy Sunshine Week, everyone.
Christian Trejbal is the founder of Opinion in a Pinch, a firm that specializes in writing custom editorials and other opinion content. He was the open government chair for the Association of Opinion Journalists for more than a decade. He can be reached at email@example.com and at pinchopinion.com.