Governmental transparency keeps citizens safe

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 22, 2014

Members of the media and others are wrapping up the annual observation of Sunshine Week, which began Sunday and runs through today. Sunshine Week’s focus is keeping government bodies accountable to the people they serve.

The week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information, in other words, the people’s right to know.

The week is held in mid-March to coincide with the March 16 birthday of founding father and former President James Madison, one of the nation’s first and greatest champions of open government.

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

Ours is a government of the people, and the people have a right to know what their representatives are doing, and why, and how they are spending public money.

Freedom of information laws at the federal, state and local levels are intended to give individual citizens, not just members of the press, access to important facts about the work of government.

When these laws function well, they make government more accountable to the people. Laws promoting government transparency often are called “sunshine laws” to express the idea that government works best when it’s open to the clear light of public scrutiny.

But government officials, being mere mortals like the rest of us, have a tendency to avoid disclosing information that is embarrassing or politically inconvenient. That creates pressure by those in power to weaken sunshine laws at all levels of government or to resist compliance with the sunshine laws on the books.

Since the dawn of this republic, government officials have found rationales for secrecy, but secrecy can create public distrust and weaken the government’s credibility in doing the work of the people.

Many Americans view government as secretive. And if public confidence in government is ever to increase, then government leaders and bureaucrats would do well to observe the principles of Sunshine Week every week of the year.