Editorial: Government can create confidence with greater transparency

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Sunshine Week, that annual event organized by journalists and media organizations to emphasize the value of open and responsive government, began Sunday. It's safe to say there's never been a better time to showcase those values.

The negative, unfortunately regular drumbeat of scandal following scandal, stonewalling following screw-up strikes at every taxpayer, every citizen hoping to get answers from public officials. Indeed, confidence in government remains dramatically low, and too many people believe federal and state governments cling to a climate of secrecy.

Yet there's little question from anyone outside government - and many inside - that government works best when it works in the light of day, when elected officials and government employees know the folks who pay their salaries are watching what they do. Following through on a change in attitude and embracing 21st century technology could go a long way toward ensuring open government for all of us.

New administrations in Washington and Springfield now seem to hold a different attitude about the public's right to know. Following leaders who strongly resisted transparent government and many requests under the Freedom of Information Act, President Barack Obama and Gov. Pat Quinn have ordered an about-face. They've both directed government employees to assume documents should be disclosed unless there's a clear, legal reason they ought to remain secret.

But deep skepticism remains. A Scripps-Howard News Service/Ohio University survey shows that 61 percent of people believe federal agencies "only sometimes, rarely or never" follow their own rules for releasing information to folks making FOIA requests. The only way to overcome that level of doubt from voters is for the feds to follow their new directives consistently, and to shine a light on it if they don't.

Governments can also breed more confidence by adapting to changing times. In Illinois, Quinn has spoken of putting more government information - contracts, expenditures, inspection reports - online so that citizens can search it without having to file FOIA requests. This truly is the future of open government when it's done properly, because it can lessen the burdens on government offices that now search for, pull, copy and deliver documents that can be put online from the beginning.

Such an effort has seen great success in Nebraska, which puts all its state spending online in a searchable database that drew 400,000 visitors in its first year. Before it went online, state departments revised some of their spending data, putting items back into the proper categories before anybody could search through and find things mislabeled or misappropriated. Bottom line there: Transparency and impending public scrutiny forced honesty upon them.

Unfortunately, today Illinois ranks 32nd in a survey of state and local government information available online that was conducted for Sunshine Week, so we have a ways to go before catching up to the Cornhusker State. But Internet-based efforts may be the easiest way to reach the most jaded among us: the newest generation of young voters, who in survey after survey have expressed the lowest confidence in their government. A generation of people raised on Internet research will be the first to see if these efforts are working, and the fastest to notice if governments are only paying lip service to openness.

Ultimately, any continued push for governments to be more open cannot just come from the media, though it will always remain a watchdog for the public. The majority of information requests at all levels - local, state and federal - come from private citizens. As voters we all reap the benefits of a government that is open about what it is doing, whether that scrutiny saves tax dollars from waste or simply gives us the confidence that our leaders are working for the public good.

Every year this week reminds us of how much or how little we've moved toward restoring that confidence, and just how much of a push we all need to make to guarantee steady progress. We will only get an open government if voters continue to demand that our leaders bury the obstructions and secrecy of the past and remind them that we're watching.

Peoria Journal Star