March 21, 2018; The Conversation
A foundational principle of American democracy is the importance of government transparency. Transparency serves various functions by demonstrating that the public’s will is being implemented and confirming that taxpayer resources are being used responsibly. Furthermore, transparency acts as a mechanism for ensuring accountability, both of individual elected representatives and public institutions themselves, by building positive feedback loops to increase public trust and thereby improve the operation of government itself. Given the proliferation of technology and the ease of accessing information, it has never been easier for public entities to be transparent, as is evidenced by the movement for open government, which includes cities and governments throughout the globe, and aims to make public information more accessible.
The public funds several institutions within the government that conduct in depth research on a wide range of topics: from employment and market trends to issues such as economic development using local food systems to public health issues such as the opioid epidemic. Some of this information is detailed in reports and clearinghouses such as the ones produced by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation through the Office of Administration for Children and Families. Others are guides and toolkits designed for specific initiatives, such as the CDFI Fund’s Technical Assistance Resource Banks for CDFIs, health literacy toolkits from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and civic engagement toolkits from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which is designed to increase access and awareness of nutrition assistance programs. Together, the enterprise of state and federal governments produces vast quantities of information that is owned by the public and is a critical component of transparency. Nonprofits often access this information to develop a better understanding of community needs, to identify emerging trends and solutions, to share resources with the communities they serve, and to engage in meaningful dialogue about relevant issues. The importance of public information cannot be understated as a collective resource that should be embraced by citizens, politicians, and the leaders of public institutions. As a result, nonprofits often see the promotion of transparency as a core part of their complex array of roles.
One of the most drastic examples of failing to live up to this obligation of transparency and dissemination of publicly owned information is the systematic dismantling of public information related to climate change by the current administration. This process has been documented by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), an international network of academics and nonprofits who have zeroed in on the availability of public information through government sites, and in particular through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal departments. In January, EDGI released a detailed report called “Changing the Digital Climate” that documents the censorship of climate change data. The report outlines censorship tactics over the past year and illustrates how shifts in government priorities inform the dissemination and availability of public information. While the report identifies several disconcerting developments, including the removal of entire websites and documents such as the EPAs Clean Power Plan website, as well as shifting language about the impact of fossil fuels, the overall scope of erosion of public information is troubling. The critique of this concerted effort is best summarized by Alex Howard, Deputy Director of the Sunlight Foundation, who says:
Public understanding of public policy should be informed by public access to public research and evidence, not diminished or distorted. The United States government and the officials entrusted with stewardship of public lands and knowledge should be using its immense resources to enlighten and empower the nation, increasing resilience and igniting more effective responses to shared challenges. Removing information from the public’s view will not change the fact that human activity is having an impact upon our climate, nor the urgency of acting upon that reality.
Though the EDGI report captures the changing tide of priorities and how those shifts are leading to less data on climate change, there are other things to consider. Certainly, some removed information can be accessed and viewed using tools such as Internet Archive; however, not all information is available. Furthermore, recent changes to the federal government’s FOIA portal for requesting public information reveal larger efforts to obscure public access to information by eliminating certain features and spotlights, which in the past have highlighted specific reports and initiatives of public concern. While these examples relate to the federal government, state governments have their own issues, such as the recent move by the Washington State legislature to shield representative records from public view (SB 6617), which was passed without debate, and was referred to by the Washington Coalition for Open Government as “an abomination.”
As more people and nonprofits recognize the importance of public information and transparency in the face of attempts to hide data, it’s important to note that there are existing efforts that offer promise. One such example is the recently completed Sunshine Week, organized by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee, which is an annual nationwide celebration of access to public information. Efforts like this spotlight the ways in which government should operate in partnership with civil society, both by offering resources for public review, and by collaborating with stakeholders, researchers, and institutions on dissemination of such materials. Nonprofits know all too well the value of transparency and have invested countless hours and resources into ensuring that their operations meet transparency standards and requirements. It’s time to remember how transparency extends to the public sector as a conduit for participation and engagement in the institutions that govern democratic society.—Derrick Rhayn