FOI Day Mock Caucus Sparks Debate on Transparency Priorities

On March 11th, OpenTheGovernment.org joined the Newseum Institute, the American Society of News Editors, Sunshine Week, and the American Library Association in hosting National Freedom of Information Day at the Newseum. Among the day’s full schedule of events, OTG organized a mock caucus allowing attendees to weigh in on which of four issues presented they viewed as the top policy priorities for strengthening accountability and open government in 2017.

Rather than simply bringing experts together for an information panel discussion, the mock caucus engaged the audience on four areas of open government beyond FOIA, and then asked them to rank the issues based on which they found most compelling. The panelists, for their part, pitched their issues of expertise to the audience, explaining why each should be a focus for the openness community’s advocacy with the next administration/Congress. Elizabeth Goitein (Brennan Center for Justice) pushed for transparency in the national security state, Anna Myers (Government Accountability Project) pitched whistleblower protections, Craig Holman (Public Citizen) made the case for ethics and money in politics, and Scott Roberts (ColorOfChange) argued for police transparency.

Adam Marshall (Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press) kicked off the panel with a discussion of progress on FOIA reform, and where work still needs to be done. Marshall highlighted the need for technological advancement in the requesting process, greater proactive disclosure, and curbing the abuse of exemptions. FOIA was not included on the ballot, given its nature as an issue that underlies all the others.

Moderator Gary Bass (Bauman Foundation) asked the audience to give an initial vote before the panelists made their pitches, and ethics and money in politics won the first ballot. After the initial vote, the audience listened as the panelists made the case for their issues. Goitein argued that the national security state has unprecedented technological capabilities and legal authority to conduct surveillance, and that the “most dangerous powers our government has are exercised almost entirely in the dark.” Myers followed with the argument that whistleblower protections would improve accountability across all the other issues, citing the need for safe channels for reporting wrongdoing in the police, the intelligence community, and among corporate lobbyists.

Holman, too, discussed the cross-cutting nature of ethics and money in politics, and argued that this election cycle has given Americans an unprecedented opportunity to make change on this issue. Finally, Roberts detailed the painful struggle undertaken by families of those killed by police to obtain files and videos from law enforcement agencies, and emphasized the importance of support from the openness community and the value of policing data for activists and communities driving reform.

The audience then questioned the speakers and offered their own thoughts on the issues. When the final votes were tallied, police transparency came out on top, followed by ethics and money in politics, national security, and then whistleblower protections. Voters were asked to write comments on their final ballots on the best selling point and biggest hurdle for each issue.

On police transparency, many in the audience were convinced by the way Roberts personalized the issue, and saw the problem as an urgent one. They also identified entrenched societal attitudes on police and race as a major obstacle to progress.

Those who ranked ethics and money in politics highly did so because they saw it as having the broadest impact across issues – but they also questioned the feasibility of making real change.

On secrecy in the national security state, many voters considered the issue in terms of values; they saw secrecy and unchecked surveillance as anti-democratic, but many also struggled with a perceived need for balance between security and transparency.

Voters who prioritized whistleblower protections wrote about the importance of the issue for rebuilding trust in government. However, they were concerned about leaks of sensitive information, and also worried that it may be difficult to reduce fear of reprisal among potential whistleblowers.

Bass wrapped up the caucus by pushing the openness to community to focus on all five issues as top priorities for the next administration/Congress, and asking the speakers to identify the best path forward for addressing the imbalance of power in each issue. Marshall and Holman spoke about the need for a forward-looking Congress to push for both FOIA and ethics reforms, and encouraged the audience to reach out to their representatives. Goitein argued that focusing on the secret law that governs the national security state presents an opportunity for change. While some may feel conflicted on keeping sensitive national security information secret, it’s much more difficult to make an argument for keeping legal guidance and regulations out of the public’s eye. Roberts made a case for open law enforcement data as the key to shifting the balance of power, and emphasized that all Americans have an interest in staying informed on police practices. Myers closed the discussion by arguing that shifting public attitudes on whistleblowers is key, because Americans will support change once they understand that whistleblowers are speaking out for them.     

    

Video courtesy of the Newseum

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