Could Public Interest in Sunshine Laws Increase State & Local Government Workloads?
Could media reporting on a federal program generate interest in your state and local government programs? Could that public interest result in expanding your visibility, obligations, and workloads? It’s a strong probability. [Happy Sunshine Act Compliance Day]
Federal Sunshine Law Contributes to State Government Law
The federal program is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which has mandated the disclosure of federal government records for more than 45 years. Over time, the successful implementation of FOIA has contributed to every state in the USA having its own equivalent Sunshine Law. You may call it a disclosure law, transparency, or open government. But when the FOIA results in national and international conferences, proclamations, and Congressional hearings, the expectations of the citizens whom we serve will rise at all levels.
Sunshine Day Observances
Sunshine in Government Day is observed each year on March 16, which is the birthday of James Madison, generally regarded as the Father of the Constitution, and the nation’s first advocate for open government. Numerous non-government organizations are organizing celebrations and conferences to commemorate the statute, which has even been used by foreign governments as a model law which they have emulated.
According to University of Missouri’s School of Journalism FOI Center, there are now 131 countries with some form of disclosure statute in effect (clearly at varying levels of effectiveness). But the US continues to lead the way in openness and disclosure. In the Washington, DC area, multiple organizations will come together at the Newseum, to acknowledge and celebrate the importance of the FOIA. The day-long program will bring public interest groups, media, government officials and others together, to talk about the importance of open government, and how that program can be strengthened. Even Congress is considering expanding the scope of the FOIA.
State and Local Laws
What’s interesting, is that all 50 states also have laws which are aimed at openness, transparency, sunshine in government, or some other phrase which is roughly equivalent to what the federal FOIA program. But, after a search of state government websites, I haven’t located many programs focusing on Sunshine Day, in support of openness and transparency at the state or local level.However, the public’s increasing focus on significant issues such as Edward Snowden’s release of classified records, or Hillary Clinton’s e-mail, has sparked public interest and involvement, and strong support is emerging, for enhanced access to government records at all levels. Such access has resulted in the publication of numerous stories in the media, after obtaining access to government records.
What’s the Impact on State and Local Government?
Be prepared for your agency, contractors, and staff, to be asked to provide records, which – without your state laws - would not otherwise have been available. Consider how you will search for responsive records, conduct reviews of these records, and remove those portions of a record which your state laws require you to protect, before release -- all under the guise of sunshine act compliance.
What Have States Already Done to Prepare for Requests for Access to State Documents?
Many states have gone above and beyond just passing statutes – New York, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and numerous other states, have created websites dedicated to providing information to its citizens. These state websites generally include instructions on how to access state government records. Many provide on-line instruction, procedural manuals, options for submitting a request for access to your records, and ways in which to appeal a decision not to release records.
One of several excellent websites is maintained by the state of Ohio. Officials in that state created a site which is dedicated to informing the public about their sunshine laws. The website includes on-line training, and the right to mediation when records are not released in a timely manner, or when citizens believe that information was incorrectly withheld. These state laws carry over into a number of different programs, and advise the public of future meetings where they may provide state officials with opinions, provide access to contracts and budget data, and official correspondence, while ensuring that non-releasable information is protected, to include trade secrets, and information which, if released, could violate an individual’s right to privacy.Sunshine Day focuses on the importance of open government at all levels, and the list of interested groups includes journalists, civic groups, archives, and educational institutions. Each of these participants have an interest in open government. The result? Americans expect increasing openness and transparency at every level, including state and local governments.
About the Author: Fred Sadler
Fred served 40 years with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Officer and the Senior Official for Privacy. In that role, he testified before the House of Representatives’ Sub-committee on Oversight and Reform and was a frequent speaker for the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy. Fred is a Certified Information Privacy Professional through the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) and also holds its accreditation as a Certified Information Privacy Manager. He is a three-time recipient of the Commissioner’s Commendable Service Award and has also received the Health and Human Services Secretary’s Award for Distinguished Service. A former two-term president of the American Society of Access Professionals, Fred is an expert in the theory, process and application of privacy laws.