FOI Advocate Blog

The NFOIC open government blog is a compendium of original concepts and analysis as well as ideas, edited excerpts and materials from a variety of sources. When the information comes from another source, we will attribute it and provide a link. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited; we will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

For Advocate posts prior to July, 2011, visit http://foiadvocate.blogspot.com/.
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July 14, 2014 10:22 AM

President Barack Obama promised to create “a new era of openness” on the first day of his first term. It’s a sad irony that his administration has continued the 20-year trend of being less and less open to journalists. It has prosecuted leaks and leakers, threatened journalists with jail, denied credentials, and established policies that restrict federal officials from talking to reporters.

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), which I belong to, sent the president a letter July 8. It said, “You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government. You need look no further than your own administration for a major source of that frustration – politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies. We call on you to take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.”

Even today the White House website trumpets the beauty of openness. It says, “President Obama is committed to making this the most open and participatory administration in history. That begins with taking your questions and comments, inviting you to join online events with White House officials, and giving you a way to engage with your government on the issues that matter the most.” Continue>>>
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July 1, 2014 1:05 PM

In an effort to be more transparent and participatory, governments are making more data publicly available in machine-readable formats and under open licenses, but such noble aims are not immune to privacy issues, says a paper published June 18 in Future Internet, a Switzerland-based scholarly journal.

The open government movement faces several privacy challenges, including responsibly handling "public" personal information, distinguishing between public and private-sector actors, and the potential for monitoring and profiling of citizens through big data, writes Teresa Scassa, the report's author and a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

Governments handle large volumes of personal information and in some cases the principles of open government have required its disclosure, creating so-called public personal information, says Scassa. Continue>>>
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June 27, 2014 7:05 AM

It’s become more than apparent since its passage in 1998 that Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act has holes that need to be filled if we are ever to ensure truly open government. Efforts have been made to amend the act and tighten its language, but it seems our Legislature has had more important things to do.

Jim Christiana is the latest state representative to propose changes to improve transparency and participation in open meetings. You may recall that Christiana is the Beaver County legislator who, through shameless gerrymandering, represents a portion of Washington County, some of which is a half day’s journey from his home.

Christiana proposes to amend the law to mandate making agendas available to the public at meeting locations and online, requiring items to be voted on to be advertised before meetings and ensuring that items omitted from the agenda are not voted on during meetings. The legislator cited continuing issues in Beaver County as his chief reason for seeking the reform. Continue>>>
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June 16, 2014 7:43 AM

The Open Government movement has captured the imagination of many around the world as a way of increasing transparency, participation, and accountability. In the US, many of the federal, state, and local Open Government initiatives have been demonstrated to achieve positive results for citizens here and abroad. In fact, the White House’s science advisors released a refreshed Open Government plan in early June.

However, a recent study in Sweden says the benefits of transparency may vary, and may have little impact on citizens’ perception of legitimacy and trust in government. This research suggests important lessons on how public managers should approach the design of transparency strategies, and how they work in various conditions.

Jenny de Fine Licht, a scholar at the University of Gothenberg in Sweden, offers a more nuanced view of the influence of transparency in political decision making on public legitimacy and trust, in a paper that appears in the current issue of “Public Administration Review.” Her research challenges the assumption of many in the Open Government movement that greater transparency necessarily leads to greater citizen trust in government. Continue>>>
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May 22, 2014 9:46 AM

Open government isn't a new concept. Thanks to the proliferation of the printing press, the Age of Enlightenment blasted through Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries and brought demands for new rights: free speech, assembly, and, of course, the freedom of the press.

Shedding light on the powers-that-be tends to inspire accountability. These days, you don't even need a bulky printing press or ink. Whether you're writing, coding, or petitioning for change on social media, you're in a pretty good position to change the way things get done in government. Just grab your laptop and get started!

We've been spreading the word on transparency and participation during our Open Government Week, but if you're wondering to yourself, "What is open government?", start with our video playlist below. Continue>>>
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May 6, 2014 9:45 AM

One thing is clear — city officials want citizens to see how local government operates.

Last month, the city of Aztec added a new page to its website in the effort to make public city records more accessible.

The new page features links to request public records, access the city's annual budgets, look at gross receipts collections per year, examine bids and contracts, read the city's 10-year fiscal analysis and summary, and other information.

"It's a trend. We don't want to just give lip service to transparency, but make it a reality," Ray said. "Local government is a different mentality for us — everything is out there for us, anything to do with our daily decisions, budget documents, public records requests. We thought, if we're going to have a tech-savvy community, let's make a page dedicated to transparency. It comes from what we've been hearing from all levels of government for the last 7 or 8 years." Continue>>>
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April 14, 2014 8:09 AM

Sometimes important public opinion research does not receive the attention it deserves. The Global Opening Government Survey – a study undertaken through collaboration between the World Bank’s Open Government Practice and RIWI Corporation, a Toronto-based company – is one such survey.

Global in scope, the Global Opening Government Survey spanned 63 countries on every continent. It asked the fundamental question: Do citizens perceive their governments to be open, as well as why, and how they want government to be more open.

Government openness is an important democratic requirement; it enables citizens to make informed choices, to question policies and hold politicians to account. In this sense, the extent to which citizens perceive government as open may be a litmus test for a healthy, democratic environment. Continue>>>
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March 16, 2014 2:33 AM

Why do Florida's government-in-the-sunshine laws matter so much? Because when nobody watches government closely, bad things happen.

Because democracy depends on an informed citizenry, and it's impossible to know what's happening without access to records and meetings.

Because how else would we know about the dangers of speeding cops in South Florida, or the prevalence of bear attacks in a Central Florida town, or the enormous number of sexual predators who attack again after their release?

People know about these threats because of government records obtained by the Sun Sentinel — and our sister paper, the Orlando Sentinel — in the past year. Before our reporters combed the records and connected the dots, no one had grasped the magnitude of the problems. No one would know yet, but for Florida's famous open-government laws. Continue>>>
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March 2, 2014 4:44 AM

The charge that South Burlington failed to publicly announce a gathering of a quorum of city councilors underscores the need for public officials to be far more aware of appearances.

The open meeting controversy brewing in the City Council also offers a cautionary tale for local politicians who must operate in a hyper-partisan environment.

Three city councilors — Pam McKenzie, Chris Shaw, and Pat Nowak — have been accused of violating the state’s open meetings law by attending the launch party for South Burlington’s Energy Committee. Continue>>>
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March 2, 2014 3:33 AM

Two Ohio Supreme Court decisions denying attorney fees to a woman who fought the city of South Euclid for public records represent major setbacks to the cause of open government in Ohio, according to the Ohio Newspaper Association.

“This is an egregious case,” said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the ONA. “The city stonewalled the citizen requesting the information for months, and she even had to get an accountant to show that records the city claimed it didn’t have really existed.”

The court ruled on Feb. 18 in two separate cases brought by Emilie DeFranco against South Euclid that while she was entitled to damages up to a maximum of $1,000 because of the city’s unresponsiveness, state statutes meant she wasn’t entitled to recover legal fees. Continue>>>
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March 2, 2014 2:22 AM

Chances are a new initiative by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon won’t make tax time any easier, but it will be more interesting. Starting now, those who file state taxes online will have the chance to see where those tax dollars are going. A receipt will break down how much money is going to which state programs.


Concerned about public safety? You’ll find about $41.07 of every $1,000 in taxes goes toward that purpose. From pensions ($145.02) to schools ($237.44) and beyond, expenditures are detailed in both a chart and table.


“This is about transparency, openness and accountability,” Simon said. “If you receive a receipt for a $5 purchase at a gas station, you should be able to get one for your income taxes. The people of Illinois deserve to know where there money is going and how it’s being spent.” Continue>>>
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March 2, 2014 1:11 AM

What’s Sunshine Week, you ask?

The journalism associations behind the mid-March event describe Sunshine Week as “a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.” Sunshine is shorthand for the open-meetings and open-records laws that guarantee a governing body is operating in the open.

Last week the Alabama Senate did its part, passing a strengthened version of the state’s Open Meetings Act. Why was it necessary? Because in recent rulings the state Supreme Court weakened the act in key provisions. The bill would reinstate provisions that (a.) make sure open-meeting rules apply to the Legislature, (b.) allow residents to sue governments for violations of the law, and (c.) deny a few members of elected bodies to meet secretly to discuss the public’s business, a technique known as “serial meetings.”

A news release from the Alabama Press Association singled out sponsor Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, and Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, “for their leadership in getting this through the Senate.” Continue>>>
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