Preserving access to government information


It is no surprise that virtually all of the talk to and about newly elected officials focuses on the economy and jobs, jobs, jobs. One undertone that is too often ignored is the ever-so-subtle issue of the public’s right to information by and about the government.

Two disparate situations bring the latest issue to the surface. One is the approach to the electoral process evident in the openness of the recent vote count and in plans underway for a potential recount. The Secretary of State, the election judges, the legacy and alternative press are all at the table, exposing the process and the results. On the other hand, the doors have remained slammed on the press and public seeking information about the selection of a President for the People’s University. It’s time to aim the spotlight at an issue too often relegated to the closet.

One basic reality is that open government enjoys a special place in history as a nonpartisan issue, articulated by the founding fathers (who disagreed about just about everything) as a fundamental tenet of the democracy. Similarly, the State of Minnesota has a distinguished and nonpartisan history of nonpartisan support for open government. In spite of this proud heritage, open government is currently more honored in the breach than in the observance.

To a great extent it’s change rather than malicious intent that poses the threat.

  • Because the President has positioned his administration as a vocal proponent of open access, the inclination on the part of the other party may be to turn a deaf ear. In fact,

  • The first change is in the newness as much as the politics of newly elected decision-makers. Access to information is an extraordinarily complex political arena in which experience, institutional memory and practice balancing forces are not infused but shaped by time on task. Elected officials, incoming administrators, fledgling staffers and others who forge the information chain are often new to the game, newer still to the nuances of public policy relating to information. In the current information environment mastery of the tools far outstrips attention to policy implications of technology.

  • Second, the information chain itself is in flux bordering chaos. The inexorable march of information and ideas from decision-maker to constituent, agency to consumer, candidate to the public is cast aside as information – and misinformation – pulsates through the “pipes,” favoring those who own and understand the tools, disenfranchising those for whom time, geography, skill, finances and other incidentals present insurmountable barriers. Agencies live in solitary splendor while the floodgates open to horizontal flows that ignore and supersede traditional organizational structures.

  • Third, the decline of investigative journalism has had a devastating effect on an informed public. The journalists, print and electronic, bore a heavy responsibility.  They served the public good by ferreting out the truth, researching the record, separating fact from fiction, poking and probing, digesting and deliberating – then producing information that makes sense to the reader, listener or viewer . As their ranks dwindle there is a scramble to fill the void and a desperate search for a viable replacement model able to enhance public understanding rather than drivel.

  • Fourth, though ignorance of the law may be no excuse, it nonetheless persists. Those who need to know often do not know their rights. Public and nonprofit agencies face critical challenges that cry out for immediate resource allocation.

  • Finally, though current laws need constant review and tweaking, the base is firm; transparency is recognized as a basic right. As technology presents both possibilities and pitfalls, existing laws deserve review and revision. More importantly, implementation of laws and policies requires specific attention to oversight by responsible agencies at every level. Again, it’s one of those implicit tasks that is so basic it can be neglected in deference to issues that are more dire, more doable or more politically persuasive.

Though undeniable and non-controversial, the basics are implicit and thus overlooked:


  • That right is stated with clarity in legislation and regulation.

  • Responsibility for oversight is sometimes unclear, more often buried in or blurred the bureaucracy.

  • Organizations and agencies that provide services to the public have an urgent responsibility to affirm that right and to provide the tools, skills and attitudes essential to an informed citizenry.

  • The priority is to affirm and internalize the fact that an understanding of access must join the roster of essentials for elected officials, bureaucracies, nonprofits, schools, communities and families.

  • Information, alone among public goods, does not diminish but expands with use.

  • Sound information policy, combined with attention to implementation of that policy, is not a cost but a long-term investment.

It is at our individual and political peril that we ignore the basics.