The quest for open government demands diligence. So it is that several recent developments lead us to once again emphasize the importance of transparency from elected officials and government agencies.
In one example, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, has introduced House Bill 1770 to facilitate openness in the sharing of government documents. The OPEN Government Data Act — with the apparently mandatory acronym standing for Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary — would require the federal government to share data in a digitally readable format, with no charge to the public. The Senate passed a companion bill in December, but the House failed to take action before the end of the congressional session; the bill has been reintroduced this year.
By creating data in a format that is easily accessible and ready to share with the public, federal agencies can reduce the cost of complying with requests and make government more responsive to taxpayers. It also would provide some safeguards against actions such as when the Trump administration sought to scrub climate change data from Environmental Protection Agency websites. The administration quickly backed away from that plan in the wake of an outcry from the public and the scientific community, but the issue brought up the possibility of decades of valuable research being lost.
The idea of open government is not limited to the federal level. Indeed, it often is even more important at the city, county and state levels, where government has a more direct impact upon constituents. Because of that, we again call for legislators to remove their exemption from public-records laws in Washington. Lawmakers are not required to release their emails or their calendars upon a request from the public, while other government entities — including the governor — are required to do so. Why? Because lawmakers exempted themselves from the law.
This should be anathema to those who value open government. The public has a right to know who is lobbying for particular legislation and attempting to influence the process, either online or in person. To use two current examples, it would be beneficial for lawmakers’ employers — meaning taxpayers — to be aware of their representatives’ communications regarding school funding or public-employee contracts.
Lawmakers have argued that they receive sensitive communications from constituents and that constituents deserve privacy. The need for some exceptions is understandable, but legislators should be required to make a case for secrecy in an individual situation, rather than being afforded blanket immunity.
Finally, the Trump administration has announced that it will not release the log of visitors to the White House. This breaks with protocol established by the Obama administration, which published a list of visitors online. It should be noted that the Obama administration typically would wait months before posting the lists, and that some former officials have said the lists were scrubbed of potentially sensitive names.
A 2013 court ruling determined that the White House visitor logs are presidential records and are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Therefore, Trump has a legal right to keep the logs private, but the action does little to create confidence that he is, indeed, draining the swamp in Washington, D.C.
On every level, transparent government is essential to creating and maintaining the public’s trust. Elected officials should do a better job of making openness a priority — and the public should be diligent in demanding it.