The sun shines on the government for at least 1 week each year. “Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information,” its website states. Groups marking the occasion, held March 13–19, included the news media, lawmakers, civic organizations, libraries, nonprofits, and schools interested in the public’s right to know. Originating in Florida in 2002, this annual celebration features creative workshops, events, and other initiatives held throughout the nation to promote greater government transparency. For example, the following are some groups acting in the spirit of Sunshine Week:
- Rhode Island’s lawmakers are considering legislation to live-stream public meetings, which would revise that state’s Open Meetings Act.
- The California Senate introduced a bill that “would restore public access to some records of police misconduct and use of force.”
- The Poynter Institute, a leader in global journalism, posted a series of articles to commemorate Sunshine Week, highlighting the nation’s need for government entities to comply with open records laws.
Toolkit, Reporting Package, and Idea Bank
The free Sunshine Week toolkit was designed to inspire journalists, bloggers, civic organizations, schools, and government officials in planning effective Sunshine Week events. It has links to opinion columns and editorial cartoons, a sample proclamation for state and local governments, and a webpage for students and educators to use when learning and teaching about open government (including lesson plans, activities, and other resources).
The Sunshine Week site also has a 2016 reporting package of stories, columns, photos, and graphics for use by journalists around the nation. There is a list of questions for journalists to pose to candidates for federal office concerning transparent policing, accountable law enforcement, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), communications surveillance transparency, secrecy surrounding drone strikes, electronic records management, whistleblowers, open government collaboration (between the government and nongovernmental organizations), and campaign finance.
The Idea Bank suggests open governments themes such as audits of compliance with records laws, reviews of government websites, reviews of proposed open government laws, spotlights on local heroes, the demystification of public records, and the role that the freedom of information plays in reporting and the community.
Celebrations Across the Nation
Sunshine Week’s website lists the events that were held across the country during the celebration (you can also use #SunshineWeek to find events). Although it remains a district without voting representation in Congress, Washington, D.C., enthusiastically embraced Sunshine Week. The following sections offer a roundup of events that took place in the nation’s capital earlier this month.
National Freedom of Information Day Conference
On March 11, the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center joined with OpenTheGovernment.org, the American Society of News Editors (ASNE), Sunshine Week, and the American Library Association (ALA) to host the National Freedom of Information Day Conference, where they addressed transparency in government, open records, and freedom of information laws and practices. After a brief introduction about the work of OGIS (Office of Government Information Services) by its director, James Holzer, a panel of speakers discussed FOIA from the government’s perspective. Moderator Tom Susman, director of the American Bar Association’s Government Affairs Office, was joined by former FOIA government officials from various federal agencies. The panelists noted how far the nation (and the public) has come in terms of proactive disclosures, such as for government spending and contracting. Finally, the panel wondered whether, during confirmation hearings for the next administration, we can ask, “What is your commitment to transparency in government?”
During the second session of the day, Your Right to Know, Your Vote! Caucus on the Top 2017 Policy Priorities, panelists argued why an issue they promote should be the top priority in an incoming administration. The issues were national security transparency, whistleblower protections, money in politics and disclosures of political contributions, and policing transparency. Declaring FOIA “essential to our democracy,” Adam Marshall, a fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (a sponsor of Sunshine Week), presented the audience with a litany of what must be done to bolster FOIA, including the following actions:
- Reform FOIA exemptions, particularly (b)(5): “Inter-agency or intra-agency memorandum or letters.”
- As commercial requesters overwhelm agencies, requests made by citizens, local community groups, and journalists suffer. Legislators can increase fees for commercial requesters or create “separate lanes” for processing.
- Overhaul how agencies store and retrieve records, with the default being electronic.
- “We need a public interest balancing test, shorter sunsets for privileges (12 years), and (b)(7) reform (‘records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes’).”
ALA president Sari Feldman presented the 2016 James Madison Award to Seamus Kraft, executive director and co-founder of The OpenGov Foundation. It develops “software, events, and coalitions that push governments across the country to be more accessible and responsive.” (Kraft’s acceptance speech is available on YouTube.) National Freedom of Information Act Hall of Fame inductees this year included Miriam Nisbet (founding director of OGIS and former ALA legal counsel) and Cori Zarek (senior advisor for open government at the Office of Science and Technology Policy). Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, gave the luncheon keynote address (via video).
The afternoon session provided a report on the Associated Press’ (AP) Sunshine Week project. The panelists covered a range of “blocks and burdens” they (and others) face when filing FOIA requests and what news organizations are doing to support their own journalists, including awareness training and legal services for startups, new media, and freelance journalists. The day ended with a performance of FOIA Love: A Comedy Show About Public Records.
D.C. Open Government Coalition
On March 15, the D.C. Open Government Coalition hosted a program at the National Press Club that began with a conversation with Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser about the importance of open government at the municipal level. It also featured experts from government and civic organizations discussing the recently introduced Strengthening Transparency and Open Access to Government Amendment Act of 2016, an omnibus transparency bill that would make important improvements to the District of Columbia FOIA and the Open Meetings Act, as well as strengthen the Office of Open Government.