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Sunshine Week is almost upon us, so it’s a good time to take a step back and review what transparency in the federal government looks like in 2023.
What is Sunshine Week?
Sunshine Week is an annual event started in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors (now known as the News Leaders Association). It was founded upon the noble idea that government functions best when it operates in the open. It’s intended as an opportunity for civic groups, journalists, government officials and employees, and the general public to recognize the importance of open and transparent government as a cornerstone of a healthy democracy.
When is Sunshine Week?
Sunshine Week is held in the week surrounding March 16. Why March 16? March 16 is National Freedom of Information Day and James Madison’s birthday. Madison was a staunch advocate for the freedom of information and individual rights to obtain information from the government. He once wrote:
“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. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
What Does U.S. Federal Transparency Look Like?
Madison may have planted the seeds of open government in the 1700’s, but it was not until July 4, 1966 that the public’s right to demand information from the Federal Government was made into a law, with the passing of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). FOIA requires executive agencies to respond to requests for documents within specified time frames, with a few exceptions, and it has become one of the most widely used methods of obtaining information about what our government is doing. In 2021, there were almost 840,000 FOIA requests submitted to the federal government, and some have been the basis for the most consequential journalism in our nation.
But FOIA is only one way the government divulges important information. Other laws passed by Congress, such as the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018, and Government directives, like M-10-06, have created outlets for information about government activities. These include, to name a few:
- The Federal Register — “official journal” of the Federal Government
- The U.S. Government Manual — “official handbook” of the Federal Government
- USASpending.gov — “the official open data source of federal spending information”
- Data.gov — “the home of the U.S. Government’s open data”
- USA.gov — “USAGov’s mission is to make it easier for everyone to find and understand the government services and information they need”
- Performance.gov — reports on progress on Agency Priority Goals and Strategic Objectives
The creation of these resources demonstrates the Federal Government’s commitment to increasing transparency and cultivating a knowledgeable public. Of course, there are always exceptions and challenges (and occasional wrong-doers) that undermine true fulfillment of the promise of an open government. In a future post, I will dive into some of these issues, using the current state (some say “broken” state) of FOIA as an example.
Benjamin Tingo is the Chief Legal Officer and Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at OPEXUS. OPEXUS (formerly AINS) is a DC-based GovTech 100 awardee whose mission is to empower professionals to elevate trust in public institutions through the design, development, and delivery of specialized case management software, including Open Government (FOIA and Correspondence), OIG Audits and Investigations, and Human Resources/Employee Management. Benjamin is a licensed attorney, with nearly twenty years of experience with complex civil and criminal litigation and as in-house GovTech counsel. He is also a member of NARA’s FOIA Advisory Committee and a volunteer firefighter.