The first instinct of those in government should be openness to the people who put them in office, and to the media representing the people, but baser instincts often prevail. From town boards, to state agencies, to federal departments, the temptation is too often to hide in the shadows and, out of fear, laziness or institutional arrogance, withhold that which should be readily available to all.
We are in the middle of Sunshine Week, which was begun nine years ago by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to draw attention to the importance of open government. The media's interest here is shared by the public, which expects the press to go where it does not have the time or resources to go, but any citizen who may have to deal with government, even if it is just a disagreement with the local town clerk, has a vested interest in assuring that government is open to all.
Massachusetts has a sound open meetings law and a once-good public records law in need of updating. The latter was last revised in 1973, when records where typed out with a Smith-Corona and stashed into filing cabinets. We have moved well into the digital area since, which while considerably more efficient, tempts government into following its instinct to keep information to itself.
A bill before the House would require that records kept electronically must be available to the press and public electronically. It requires that each agency designate a records access officer. A favorite strategy of government agencies to foil access is to demand high fees for computer printouts and photocopies, which the bill addresses by instituting limits on these fees. This bill should become law this session to further advance the cause of assuring open government.
On Monday, the Center for Effective Government gave failing grades to seven of 15 federal agencies in its annual government transparency report card. An Associated Press analysis found that the White House censored or denied more Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in 2013 than in any previous year. There were more legal exceptions made in denying requests and agencies more regularly employed stalling tactics to avoid answering FOIA requests.
Much of this can be attributed to the administration's particularly aggressive stance toward leaks and, of course, unhappiness over the exposure of domestic spying by the National Security Agency triggered by the revelations of whistle-blower Edward Snowden. These reports and others were released in recent days to coincide with Sunshine Week.
The fight to assure open government would be made easier at the federal level with passage of a shield law prohibiting agencies from threatening journalists with jail time if they refuse to disclose sources. At every level of government, the press and public need the tools necessary to assure that the sun continues to shine on our government.