Happy Sunshine Week, everyone! And, if you’re reading this on March 16th, let’s hope you’re having a wonderful National Freedom of Information Day!
Every Sunshine Week, open government activists speak up about freedom of information, laud its preservation, and caution its diminishment. Sunshine Week was founded in 2002 by the Florida Society of News Editors founded Sunshine Week as an expansion of National Freedom of Information Day (which was itself founded years earlier to commemorate James Madison’s birthday). In 2005, the American Society of News Editors raised the idea to a national platform. The goal was, and remains, to amplify the dialogue about government information access issues across America for a solid seven days of news reporting, editorials, conferences, and more. The impact of social media, in particular, on Sunshine Week themes and reporting is worth watching.
A series of Sunshine Week posts on the White House Blog is a good place to start.
Open government under the current administration is a different beast than when Sunshine Week was founded. As The White House Blog (inaugurated with Barack Obama) enjoys reiterating, Obama reinvigorated open government policy on his first day in office by issuing his Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act, directing executive agencies to expedite and preempt FOIA requests by using “modern technology to information citizens about what is known and done by their government.” The similarly tech-happy Digital Government Initiative laid out a road map for streamlining IT infrastructure and web-based citizen engagement. Although the result is a more approachable and cost-effective government, a recent Associated Press report showed that FOIA requests rose only less than 1% between 2011-2012. Denials rose at 5%. These counter-effective trends illustrate a difference to keep an eye on: government operations going all Web 2.0 on us to save money and leaner government agencies with heightened sensitivities to FOIA requests.
The Washington Coalition for Open Government, our local Sunshine Week organizer, is straddling that line this year. At their Sunshine Week kick-off convention last Saturday, the 9th, they honored Jonah Spangethal-Lee, the Seattle Police Department’s resident blogger and author of their virally hilarious “Marijwhatnow” pot legalization FAQ, for his crime-reporting that is no less informative for being engaging. On the other hand, the Coalition is also speaking out about several house bills in Olympia that threaten to offer exemptions to the Public Records Act. One such bill is SHB 1128. If enacted, agencies may choose to reject public records requests that, for example, seem intended to intimidate that office or interfere with its essential duties. Agencies may also set monthly limits on time spent handling public records requests and refuse to do any beyond that allotment. This may sound like a reasonable reprieve to strapped offices or an abridgment of the right to know. Either way, between SHB 1128 and a witty crime blogger’s honors, Sunshine Week 2013 in Washington is casting light on a national conundrum.
For more information and editorials on Sunshine Week in Washington, please visit Washington Coalition for Open Government’s Facebook page, their homepage, or this handy rundown of sunshine laws in WA.
For more information, tips, and tool-kits on promoting Sunshine Week at large, see sunshineweek.org.