National FOI Day: Access is the key to good government

Monday, March 15, 1999

Tomorrow is the birthday of James Madison, who labored to embed the
principle of an informed citizenry in our civic compact. That is why across this nation, in ways large and small, March 16 is observed as National Freedom of Information Day.

Freedom of information — or “FOI,” as it's known in the access
community — is the action clause of the First Amendment contract
between the government and the people because freedom of speech, freedom of
the press, and the freedom to petition government all are meaningless
without access to government information.

When it comes to democratic processes, free speech is empty speech unless it
is informed speech.

That's why we have a National Freedom of Information Day.

Tomorrow, there will be activities and acknowledgements from the local
library to the state press association to the national right-to-know
organization. All will underscore the importance of the peoples' duty to be
informed and the public officials' duty to provide maximum access to
government meetings and records.

There are literally hundreds of groups and organizations committed to making
sure that happens every day of the year. It is not an easy task.

Local councils, commissions and boards routinely adjourn into secret session
or engage in “meetings” by telephone, fax and e-mail. Too often, citizens
appearing before these public bodies to exercise their First Amendment right
of petition are ordered to stick to one subject, avoid certain topics, speak
for only three minutes, and not to raise their voices. If they don't, they
are lectured, thrown out, or threatened with fines or jail.

Recent access audits in three different states reveal that a majority of
public officials and their employees are either woefully ignorant of
freedom-of-information laws, or deliberately dismissive of those laws, or
both. As a result, more often than not, citizens who dare to request
information paid for with their tax dollars walk away empty-handed and
seething with frustration.

In federal agencies, requests for information languish in the bowels of the
bureaucracy for months or years. A great number of them are denied. Citizens
who file Freedom of Information Act requests must be prepared to wait, to
appeal, and frequently to go to court to exercise their rightful claim to
information in federal files.

Often, this delay and denial results from a lack of resources or a lack of
priority from the elected officials and the heads of agencies. More often,
it results from a “culture of secrecy” or “a sociology of government” that
thwarts the ideal of access to public information.

Over the years, at all levels of government, many elected and appointed
officials have developed a proprietary attitude toward public records and a
dismissive attitude toward citizens' right of access. The prevailing
atmosphere at all levels of government, from local to federal, is that the
citizen seeking access is an irritant and an interloper.

As if that weren't enough, there are further obstacles to access:

  • Public officials who exploit the panic over personal privacy to put
    even more information out of reach.
  • A tendency of government officials at all levels to view public
    information as a revenue source and to turn it over to private vendors,
    compelling taxpayers to pay twice for the same information.
  • A failure of government agencies to disseminate information without
    being asked, or to fully utilize new technologies to make more information
    available more quickly.

In such an environment, citizens grow increasingly distrustful of their
leaders, increasingly unsupportive of decisions made behind closed doors,
increasingly suspicious of secrets locked away in files, and increasingly
angry at bureaucratic resistance to granting access to even the most routine

In such an environment, paranoia and conspiracy theories thrive, and
opportunities for improving government policies and operations go

That's not to say the problems can't be fixed. There are all sorts of things
that private citizens and organizations as well as public officials and
agencies can do.

Citizens need to stand their ground and press their case when confronted
with difficulties, delay and denial. They need to demand an
access-to-information accounting from the candidates who seek their votes.
They need to constantly remind public officials that government performs
best in the sunshine.

For their part, public officials need to begin with a presumption that
records are open. They need to view citizen requests for information as an
opportunity to involve more people in the political process and their own
governance. They need to find ways to make more information available to
more people — without their having to ask for it.

None of those things will happen, of course, unless and until all citizens
recognize that within the vast stores of government information resides much
that enriches and enables and empowers the individual.

None of that will happen unless and until public officials recognize a
rather simple proposition: An informed citizen is a more trusting citizen. A
more trusting citizen is a more involved citizen. And a more involved
citizen is the foundation of good government.

That's why every day needs to be a National Freedom of Information Day.

Paul McMasters may be contacted at