Ask your elected officials about open government

Every year, for every elected office, candidates are asked what their position would be on Policy X or Policy Y. Candidates also make promises about what they would do about Issue A or Issue B. And some try to assure voters that they would adhere to Principle M but not Principle N (or vice versa) if elected.

How often does Policy X or Y, Issue A or B, or Principle M or N refer to open government?

Not too often, right? But shouldn’t it?

No position, policy, issue or controversy is outside the scope of open government. Access to government records and meetings is essential to everything government does, regardless of the issue or of one’s position on it.

With that in mind, the national non-profit organization (in concert with the American Society of Newspaper Editors, The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Project on Government Oversight) came up with “10 Open Government Question for 2012.”

The groups surveyed various access and transparency groups, including VCOG, and asked us what questions we’d like candidates to office address when it comes to open government.

The survey was aimed at candidates for federal office, but most of the resulting Top 10 questions can be applied to any candidate for state or local office, too.

  • How will you make it easy for me to know as much as possible about what you and other government officials are doing on my behalf? 
  • How will you make it easy to tell who is influencing government policies?
  • How will you make it easy to tell who is influencing elections?
  • How will you protect workers who lawfully expose waste, fraud, abuse and illegality?
  • How will you make sure reporters and publishers can pursue critical stories without risk of subpoenas, prosecutions or intimidation?
  • Do you believe there is too much government secrecy, and if so, how will you fix it?
  • How will you make sure that I have the same ability to receive records under FOIA as people with access to lawyers?
  • What kind of commitments do you think you and others ought to make to ensure public service isn’t use for private gain?
  • How will you help the public keep tabs on spending?

Everyone knows the right answer. No one will come out and say they favor secrecy over openness. Or that they want to play everything close to the vest. Some will temper their remarks by saying it’s important for government to shield some things in the name of privacy, security, bargaining position, etc., but overall, there will still be a general embrace of sunshine in government.

That’s why these questions are deceptively simple. They don’t just ask, “Do you believe in open government.” They ask how how the candidate (and, for that matter, the official once elected) intends to put his or her platitudes into practice.

HOW will you make sure that I have the same ability to receive records as people with access to lawyers?  The problem here is that sometimes FOIA requests are stonewalled because some knucklehead somewhere decides that he’s got nothing to lose by wrongly withholding records because the requester doesn’t have the money to take up a court case. So, the answer to this question seems to be to make sure that responses to FOIA requests always err on the side of openness (like the statute says), that requests are always handled in a timely manner, that attempts will be made to work things out with the requesters.

HOW will you help the public keep tabs on spending? Put check registers online. Make budgets easily available on websites and make them searchable. Publish expense or travel reports.

HOW will you fix secrecy? No one may ever be able to fix secrecy: it’s human nature to hunker down and protect what one’s sees as his or her own. Setting aside the fact that the government doesn’t belong to the elected officials, it’s just as important to address the perception of secrecy. And that can be done by

  • timely notifying the public of meetings;
  • sticking to published agendas;
  • meeting in private only when necessary, not just when allowable;
  • working with requesters to identify records and getting responses out on time;
  • using government computers and email accounts whenever possible, to avoid the hassle and negative perception of having government business conducted on private accounts; and
  • remembering that the public is not the enemy (there are knucklehead requesters out there, for sure, but just as requesters should remember that government officials are real people, government officials should remember that they’d want the same right of access if they were “merely” citizens.”

I’m confident I’m not even scratching the surface of what could be. I’m sure that people with big ideas and a commitment to serve the public by running for office will have big ideas and a commitment to open government. They will come up with answers and solutions. If asked.

So, ask them!


Please run a version of this - perhaps tailored to local elections in Virginia - every October as local jurisdictions head into candidate debate season.

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