Demand open government

The Helena Independent Record

by Editorial

A bill introduced last week by a Montana senator would go a long way in making our federal government more open and more responsive to its people, and as a result, put more trust back in our democratic process.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced the Public Online Information Act that would require the federal government to put documents already considered public onto a searchable free database on the Internet.

Currently, wide assortments of federal documents are considered public record and available to anyone who wants them. But people can only see them if they know where to find them and are able to wade through reams of documents to find the ones they want.

As journalists, we know how tedious this process can be, even for the most mundane topics. We also know how long and frustrating it can be to file and win a Freedom of Information Act request for public documents. A recent local FOIA request by the Independent Record took three months to obtain records pertinent to the June 3, 2009, shooting.
Another FOIA request by the Lee Newspapers State Bureau for e-mails by a Public Service Commission member took more than a year to come through.

The everyday citizen doesn’t typically have the time or the patience to wait that long for public records. While Tester’s bill wouldn’t make online public documents retroactive — which will save millions of dollars in staff time to not have to scan — it would seriously expedite the process for the everyday citizen seeking public records in the future.

In an age where unlimited amounts of information are available at our fingertips with the click of a mouse, posting all public records online gives anyone with access to a computer the means to hold our government accountable.

Tester certainly isn’t alone in pressing for a more open government. His Montana counterpart in the House, Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., has pushed for transparency in his 10 years in Washington. He has led the charge to post his schedule, his votes, his committees and the bills he sponsors online for all to see.

There might be some wrinkles to iron out with the Public Online Information Act, but its intent — transparency — is as noble an initiative as any in our democracy.

Ultimately, transparency is about trust. We cannot trust our governmental process if it is shielded behind closed doors. We cannot trust our government officials if they withhold information from the public.
Shining light on our government is the best disinfectant for shady politics.

The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit and nonpartisan based in Washington, D.C., has made government transparency its mission. It recently said about the Public Online Information Act: “While POIA will dramatically improve public access to government information, it does so in a pragmatic manner. Its online publication requirements apply only to newly created information, are subject to a few exceptions, and become enforceable three years after enactment.”

We urge Congress to hold hearings on the Public Online Information Act, and urge you to contact your delegation to do the same. Let them know this is your government, and you should have immediate online access to it.