Happy birthday, James Madison; Let’s find a new quote for you

Tuesday, March 16, will be the birthday of James Madison, who is often referred to as a founding father championing open government.

Most often you’ll see this quote referred to him: “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” However, this quote was in reference to the public school system, not open government.

It’s a great quote, regardless, but maybe it’s time to shake things up a little and use some of his other good lines:

“Despotism can only exist in darkness.”

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

“The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.”

“The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”

Do you have a favorite open government quote? Post them here and share the quotables!

Citizen FOI warriors: Taking on local government

For Sunshine Week the American Society of News Editors honored citizen FOI warriors for their efforts to open up their governments. Check out the bios and you’ll see that they are active citizens from Florida, New Jersey and Virginia who saw problems in their local governments and wanted answers.

This is what open records are all about – providing citizens the means for finding out what is going on with their government. A couple in Virginia, Phil and Ellen Winter, noticed that the city failed to deposit their property tax check promptly, so they examined public records to show that the treasurer allegedly mishandled more than $400,000. The treasurer was booted out of office.

This is a great document-based story idea. Request to see records documenting when an agency receives checks and when it deposits them. If there is a long delay then that is interest lost for the agency (and therefore taxpayers losing out).

Arizona school district sues citizens to prohibit records requests

The Congress Elementary School District in Arizona has sued four citizens to prohibit them from requesting any more records, according to an injunction filed Jan. 28.

According to a summary by the Goldwater Institute, which is representing the citizens, the school district has repeatedly violated the public records law and refused to provide basic information, such as budgets. The district states in its suit that the citizens have harassed the school, listing the records requested, including agendas and meeting minutes.

Sometimes active citizens get into arguments with officials and request a lot of records (custodians often call them “frequent fliers”), but the solution is not stripping their right to access meeting minutes. The injunction also asks the court to force the citizens to pay the school’s attorney fees. That’s just wrong.

From an access strategy perspective, these active folks can be a big help for tipping you off to records. Check out the agency’s FOI log to see who has requested records and what documents. You can get a sense for what is going on, find out about records you might not have known about, and also request the records yourself.

Lots of education records available despite FERPA

A lot of people assume that just about every kind of record held by schools and universities are secret because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, but it’s not true.

While schools have twisted FERPA beyond its intent (see great series by the Columbus-Dispatch), you can get directory information, budget information, and serious crime/disciplinary records. Also, you can get ANY record held by a school, even grades, as long as the student is not identifiable. So, for example, The Arizona Daily Star looked at grades in all its community school districts to reveal social promotion – a bunch of students flunking classes but still being moved onto the next grade. Because names were redacted, nobody’s privacy was invaded but the problem was still exposed.

For more information, check out a great new guide produced by the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee (led by Carolyn Carlson), “Reporter’s Guide to FERPA.” You’ll find FERPA tales of horror (by David Chartrand), 10 great story ideas for school record stories (by Charles Davis), resources, and nuts and bolts breakdown of the law (by Jodi Cleesattle).

Talk softly, but carry a big open records law

Recently I did a Q&A with the Poynter Institute about The Art of Access and I mentioned the part of the book that talks about some experiments I did on effective request letters. Which works best – friendly or threatening? Honey or vinegar? In the Q&A I explain that the threatening letter results in greater response, greater compliance, faster response and lower copy fees. Odd, eh? I certainly didn’t expect that before doing my experiments.

The Poynter posting generated some discussion on listservs as people debated what works best for them. Some thought you are better off being friendly. Others said you should be tough. My 2 cents: Do both. Always be polite and friendly (I like doing the Columbo thing), but when asked to submit a records request make sure to cite the relevant statutes and case law, as well as reminders of penalties for noncompliance. Only threaten litigation if you have hit a roadblock and intend to actually sue. Label the request “PUBLIC RECORDS REQUEST” up high so they know, and make sure it gets to the right person. The research indicates that authority always wins over liking, but there’s no reason we can’t do both.

ID theft scare tactics: Fight fear with fear

A state employees union is trying to use privacy fears to keep the Daily Oklahoman from being able to find government employees who are sex offenders.

The paper requested a database of all state employees, including their name, date of birth, job description, start date, salary, agency, title and job description. Pretty standard for making sure our public employees aren’t criminals, violating nepotism policies, etc. In response, the union issued an alert urging public employees to contact the paper and their legislators to shut down the information and demand “your private information be kept confidential.”

Well, I hate to break it to them, but they are public employees and that isn’t private information anymore. The fact is any identity thief can get DOB on anyone pretty quickly. Heck, anyone can find mine online (www.pipl.com), along with my salary (Arizona Republic posted university employee salaries and in the university library), home address (Pima County Assessor’s Office), etc.

So how do we combat this fear mongering? Saying that the horse is already out of the barn doesn’t convince a lot of people, although it sometimes works (have them run their own names through http://www.pipl.com).

Another tactic: Fight fear with fear. Show people why it’s important to have that information public: sex offenders and criminals molesting our children and loved ones. We need to show people that the public good of having the information out there outweighs the drawbacks (because it does!). Paul Monies, database editor for the Oklahoman, explains it well in a column. I don’t really like having to use fear to keep records open – I would rather have a nice discussion of government accountability, democratic self-governance, etc. But that doesn’t hit home with people. Pedophiles molesting their children does.

The response will likely be, “Well, government makes sure there aren’t pedophiles working in government. I trust the government to keep me safe.” Funny that people will argue that and then five minutes later say how they don’t trust government. But they do. Gather up all the examples of where the system didn’t work. A great resource is the Investigative Reporters and Editors “Extra! Extra!” descriptions of reports. You’ll find lots of examples of government agencies failing to police themselves.

We need DOBs to make the world better. If we close public records, only identity thieves will have DOBs, and we will all be worse off.

Records document cost of war

I’ve been impressed with the efforts of Veterans for Common Sense to use FOIA for finding out important information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Paul Sullivan, executive director, is quoted in our book because of his extensive experience trying to get records out of the federal government regarding how veterans are treated (see the segment on 60 Minutes Jan. 3 about the problems).

Sullivan has found a lot through records. Recently, he wrote to me in an e-mail that his organization received documents from the Department of Veterans Affairs that outline the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to soldiers: 508,000 patients (244,000 of those are mental health issues), with the number to reach 1 million by 2014. The 40-year price tag of serving these patients is estimated to be $1 trillion.

Whether you support the wars or not, that kind of information is important to have in making decisions. Too bad more information wasn’t made available before 2003. Important decisions should not be made blindly. Transparency saves lives.

See FOI classified ads to get a sense of what agencies value

One great way to get an idea of what agencies value in FOI officers is to look at their job postings. I find them fascinating windows into agency cultures. They don’t tell the whole story, but they give a glimpse. Requesters who understand agency’s perspectives are more effective at getting what they need.

For example, check out the job postings at the American Society of Access Professionals (ASAP) Web site. Here are a few ads I saw that were illuminating:

  • Privacy officer positions are common, such as the opening for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (pay range $104,312-$153,221!). The emphasis is on understanding privacy laws, doing privacy training, and developing privacy policy (I don’t see any mention of understanding disclosure laws, such as FOIA).
  • FOIA analysts for GSS are required to have thorough knowledge of FOIA exemptions and be able to reduce FOIA backlog. The company serves DOD and other federal agencies.
  • A FOIA analyst position for contractor Phacil (serves military agencies) focuses on how to review FOIA requests and use exemptions “to withhold information from release to the public.”

Nowhere in the postings do I see mention of an understanding of the principles or intent of FOIA, or facilitating access of government information to the public. The focus is on bureaucratic processing of paperwork and knowing exemptions (how to keep things secret). This is consistent with some of the published research analyzing the bureaucratic perceptions and culture of FOIA (e.g., see Suzanne Piotrowski’s book, Governmental Transparency in the Path of Administrative Reform).

From the agency’s perspective, officials want to make sure all the exemptions are followed – not necessarily to purposely thwart your quest for information. Also, officials want to efficiently process your request, like a widget on an assembly line. Nobody likes backlogs, including the agencies (envision that scene from “I Love Lucy” where she’s cramming chocolates in her mouth as she gets behind on the candy assembly line). So anything a requester can do to streamline the backlog, the better, such as narrowing a request.

FOI soundbites: Focus on the key benefit of transparency

This morning I talked a little on CNN‘s American Morning show about proposed legislation in some states to make 911 tapes secret (clip). A victim rights person also was on the segment, arguing for the provisions to protect victim privacy. The segment was inspired by a recent Associated Press story on the issue.

I made the point that having tapes public can do some good (e.g., public awareness brought to the Toyota accelerator problem because of a 911 tape of a crash), and that journalists should and generally do follow the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics to weigh the public good against the harm in broadcasting tapes. But afterward I kicked myself because I didn’t make the most important point: Making the tapes secret will actually hurt victims, not protect them.

We make those records public in all but a few states so that our government will operate better, and to identify problems that need fixing. Because 911 operators know that calls can be aired in their community they treat victims with respect and do a better job. It’s human nature. If government can operate in secret then it can do bad things and get away with it.

When covering public records issues I think it’s important for us to focus on that basic fundamental reason for transparency. We get bogged down in legislative details and sometimes forget the big picture. I know next time I will write down that bullet point and make sure to get it in my soundbite. Transparency makes government better.