My "feelings" about access

At the Virginia Coalition for Open Government's annual conference, the panel topics were very different, but there was nonetheless a common thread running through them all.

Panelists and speakers who gathered at the Capitol on Oct. 22 discussed lobbying the General Assembly, access to information on college campuses, government technology, FOIA basics and using FOIA to create prize-winning journalism.

Just about every panel or speaker at some point got around to emphasizing a common element in the access equation: our humanity.

The relationship between the citizen and the individuals in government underpins every facet of access policy.

When lobbying the legislature, it's not enough to simply show up for hearings and write e-mails in support of or in opposition to proposed legislation, panelists said. You could have a the most perfectly reasoned, legally argument for or against a bill, but for your message to really hit home, you and the lawmaker must have some sort of relationship.

It's not a buddy-buddy relationship, and certainly not an intimate one, but it is a relationship built on respect, trust, integrity and the ability to remember that lawmakers are human. They need to know whom they can trust. They need reliable information that will help them make their decisions.

When the issue is government technology, panelists acknowledged that all the bells, whistles and gewgaws in the world won't matter if they are implemented unilaterally, without citizen input on how they use services, what services they want to see, how easy it is to use the technology, and whether they have alternatives should they not wish to engage with the new technology.

In discussing how he used records obtained under FOIA to break the Pulitzer Prize-winning story about unpaid natural gas royalties in former Bristol Herald Courier reporter Daniel Gilbert stressed how important it was to him to remember that those were people behind the counters taking in his FOIA requests. Treating them as real, live human beings made them want to work with Gilbert, not just comply with the letter of the law, but to go beyond the letter to really help him.

That point was made again by the panelists on the FOIA bootcamp panel. In fact, panelist Maria Everett, director of the FOIA Council director, frequently refers to FOIA as having an unwritten public relations element. Many citizens have found they get better results when they keep in mind that a government worker is not some cyborg, but instead a fellow neighbor, friend, parent or club member.

Again, it's not about being buddy-buddy with someone. It's about civility, compassion, thoughtfulness.

Of course, remembering the "other's" humanity goes both ways. Everett says she encourages government workers to think how they would feel if they were blocked in their attempt to get vital public information.

And in the college setting, Virginia Tech's university relations head Lawrence Hincker noted that he treats student and professional journalists alike -- with respect and patience -- because he knows that they are pursuing information that is important to them and that they are legally entitled to.

Access is not and should not be adversarial. It should be an ongoing dialogue between citizens and government, recognizing that we are all people with passions, interests, and yes, biases, but that, just as importantly, we all have feelings, we all want to be treated with dignity, we all like to help others.

Remember that the next time you file a FOIA request, the next time you place a time on a citizen's public comment at a meeting, the next time you threaten to sue because records were received a day late, or the next time you treat a FOIA request like a personal insult.

We are all in this together.

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