For those unfamiliar with this annual celebration of open government around the United States, Sunshine Week was founded over a decade ago by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, who now support it with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Sunshine Week always falls around President James Madison’s birthday on March 16. Madison is generally regarded as the forefather of open government in the United States, as evidenced by this memorable letter in 1822:
“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives,” he wrote.
In 2018, the “information darkness” of the Trump administration led to ignominy, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation’ “Foilies” to the Society for Professional Journalists’ Black Hole Award to the National Security Archives’ Rosemary Awards.
In 2019, transparency and accountability have taken on additional context during the Trump administration, which has continued to be allergic to transparency, rife with conflicts of interest, and hostile to the essential role journalism plays in a democracy. When the President of the United States repeatedly calls journalists “the enemy of the people,” a disinformation virus is weakening our body politic.
Despite the enactment of a historic open government data bill, the state of open government (data) remains divided, at risk, and underfunded in the United States.
After years of delays and democratic regression, the US government released a weak open government plan for the Open Government Partnership that was not responsive to the demands of this moment. The Open Government Partnership’s researchers found backsliding in the USA, confirming what watchdogs have been highlighting daily about this administration since January 2017.
Every Sunshine Week is an opportunity to take stock of how federal, state and local governments are complying with public records, public meetings laws, and ethics statutes with disclosure requirements, from city halls to legislatures. As the National Security Archive highlighted, the state of the Freedom of Information Act is cloudy:
Representative Elijah Cummings, D-Md, and Senators Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, recently sent a stern letter to the Interior Department reprimanding the agency for its efforts to weaken its FOIA regulations and urging it to reconsider the rule change. The proposed rule changes which garnered more than 65,000 comments – include allowing the DOI to preemptively reject what it defines as “unreasonably burdensome” requests, the possibility of imposing a monthly limit to the number of either pages or requests from a single requester the agency will process, and a host of other changes that may make it more difficult to obtain fee waivers and expedited processing.
The bipartisan group of lawmakers, all seasoned FOIA champions, told the Interior Department, “We write to express significant concern with the rule recently proposed by the Department of the Interior (DOI) concerning its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) procedures. The proposed rule appears to restrict public access to DOI’s records and delay the processing of FOIA requests in violation of the letter and spirit of FOIA. The American people have the right to access information from DOI, and the proposed rule needlessly encroaches on that right.”
The context for oversight of open government at the national level for this year, however, is different. 2018 midterm elections delivered a 116th Congress that brought with it a commitment to oversight that was sorely lacking in the last session. A core element of that oversight has been public hearings that hold public officials and corporate executives accountable for their service or services.
That will continue next week, when, as has been the tradition in past years, the U.S. House Oversight Committee will be holding a hearing during Sunshine Week in 2019, considering the Freedom of Information Act and transparency under the Trump administration.
There will be many other Sunshine Week events around DC as well. The Department of Justice’s awards for FOIA officers. The National Archives celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Office of Government Information Services (aka the federal FOIA ombudman) during the day on March 11. That night, there will be a panel discussion on how to obtain and improve coverage of climate data at the National Press Club hosted by its Journalism Institute and Freedom of the Press Committee.
There will be a DC Open Government Summit and a forum on science in the Trump era put on by the Government Accountability Project, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Sunlight Foundation’s Web Integrity Project on the evening of March 12.
Despite the threats to American democracy at the federal level and ongoing challenges to open government in the states and cities, there’s still much to celebrate in 2019.
The free press, independent judiciary, and watchdog organizations have continued to provide transparency when elected officials and civil servants have tried to make decisions in secrecy, shedding light on corruption, fraud, waste, abuse and incompetence.
Their combined efforts to bring in sunshine in government across American civil society have been a bulwark against tyranny and corruption in the United States and around the world. Thank you to everyone who continues to support, defend and extend the public’s right to know in the 21st century.