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Open government is hard to win but easy to lose

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on March 15, 2009 at 5:21 pm with 1 Comment »
March 15, 2009 5:21 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Sunshine Week is a reminder that American democracy cannot work unless citizens know what their governments are doing.

This is Sunshine Week, seven days dedicated to the cause of open government. If only such an occasion weren’t needed.

The reflex of too many public officials and administrators – and the lawyers who advise them – is to keep their agencies’ operations as opaque as possible. Embarrassing mistakes and failures are thus hidden, and it’s simply easier to get things done without pesky citizens quarreling with what’s going on.

But that reflex is inimical to American democracy, which presumes that the citizens are sovereign and owners of the governments created to serve them.

What people don’t know does hurt them. The failure of Congress and federal regulators to effectively curb reckless Wall Street transactions helped create a financial crisis of historic magnitude. Greater public scrutiny might averted at least some of the financial agony Americans are suffering today.

Exposure did help put a stop to other travesties, such as the shameful treatment of wounded war veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and lax federal oversight of dangerous Chinese imports.

Closer to home, dogged reporting by this newspaper recently brought to light a previously unknown police probe into possible crimes by a newly elected Pierce County Superior Court judge, Michael Hecht.

Had authorities been inclined to let the matter drop quietly, that would have become infinitely harder once the public had been alerted. Charges have since been brought by the state, and Hecht – finally – has decided to stop hearing cases while under this cloud.

Government has a seemingly insatiable appetite for secrecy. Open government is hard to win and easily lost.

The FBI appears to be the latest grand champion of shutting the public out. After examining FBI records, the National Security Archive – an open-government advocacy group – has concluded that the agency deliberately uses obsolete search procedures to avoid giving citizens documents they’ve requested.

Two-thirds of all FBI records requests over the last four years appear to have been denied on grounds that they couldn’t be found.

The shrinking of newspaper and broadcast newsrooms has now become the greatest single threat to public disclosure. Many government abuses would never come to light except for healthy news organizations able to finance extended investigations by professional reporters.

Internet-based news media will presumably someday figure out how to do this. For the time being, though, the Web cannot come close to matching the grunt digging work done by major newspapers.

Laws that require governments to disclose information are essential. It’s just as essential to have people asking for the information – and telling the public what they’ve found.

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  1. johnesherman says:

    I agree with you Patrick; the right-information, to the right-people, at the right-time, just-might prevent the wrong-results by the right-people tomorrow. And, that is what knowledge is all about: just choosing right-choices wisely from offered alternatives and how each of use can improve and maintain our First World living standards only as a result of our knowledge- and experienced-based right-choices made each day.

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