“We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
— Abraham Lincoln concluding his Gettysburg Address
Today starts Sunshine Week, March 15-21, an annual nationwide celebration of access to public information and the importance of that access to ourselves, our communities and our nation.
In our representative democracy, it is vital to remember that our government functions through representatives elected to office from among the American people to serve our interests and purposes. It is, therefore, accountable to us.
Government at every level derives its power from us. Everything government does, at every level, is paid for by money that comes from our paychecks. City, county, state and federal, in all of its branches, is made up of, funded by and accountable to us. But to be accountable, government must also be transparent, performing its operations in an open and public manner.
Despite the “by, for and of the people” makeup of our system, Americans’ trust in government is near historic lows. According to the Pew Research Center, 17% of Americans say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” — 13% — or “most of the time” — 14%. Partisanship and our divided political landscape contribute to the mistrust — people are likely to trust the federal government more when their party is in power — but transparency shouldn’t be a partisan issue. People are more trusting of state and local governments — 62% and 71% respectively. Statistically, trust grows as the governing bodies are closer to the voters.
Open government that provides trustworthy information and reliably conducts its operations openly is more accountable and worthy of our trust. Transparency can shore up trust in this difficult time. Regardless of who holds office, open government is the right thing for our republic, our state, our county and our city.
The Freedom of Information Act was signed into federal law in 1966; The Missouri Sunshine Law was passed in 1973. In 2018, voters passed the Clean Missouri amendment, requiring Missouri legislators to comply with the Sunshine Law and requiring that legislative records be open to the public, though lawmakers continue to resist that provision. These laws provide a framework for government transparency, but it takes vigilance by the media and the people to ensure officeholders, appointees and government workers comply with the laws’ provisions.
According to sunshineweek.org, “Sunshine Week was created by the American Society of News Editors and is now coordinated in partnership with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, but freedom of information isn’t just a press issue. It is a cornerstone of democracy, enlightening and empowering people to play an active role in their government at all levels. It helps keep public officials honest, makes government more efficient and provides a check against abuse of power.”
It is important to remind ourselves that every citizen has the right to access government records and to attend meetings in the conduct of the public business that affects so much of our lives.