@Info.Policy: Openness of government records benefits all

Robert Gellman

The United States is a leader when it comes to making government documents available to citizens. For all its flaws, our Freedom of Information Act was the first modern, open-records law anywhere in the world.

Other countries have followed our lead by passing their own access laws. In recent years, the pace has accelerated, but it has been a real struggle in many places. The European Union has been working on the subject for years, and it has never been able to reach agreement on a government access policy.

Britain offers an interesting case in point. Advocates for information accessibility spent years pushing for a law. Prime Minister Tony Blair campaigned on a platform that supported it. He allowed a bill filled with expansive exemptions to pass in his first term. We are well into his second term, however, and the law may not take full effect for several years.

Why is access to government records such a struggle in Europe while here, it's more of a motherhood-and-apple-pie issue? I have a theory.

Most countries have parliamentary systems of government. Parliament is the legislature, and some members serve as the equivalent of U.S. Cabinet secretaries. No one in power has an interest in openness. Why help the opposition?

Here, we have a clear separation of power between the executive and legislative branches. One of the persistent struggles between the branches is over access to records. Agencies do not like giving information to Congress, and Congress always wants more.

From my years as a congressional staff member, I can testify that my investigative subcommittee spent considerable time and energy seeking agency data for oversight uses. So does the General Accounting Office on behalf of Congress. Access fights over records are common in Washington.

The American campaign for information access started with the press in the 1950s. It succeeded in the end principally because the issue of access to government documents resonated with senators and representatives.

Congressional fights with the president and with agencies over information access have been an American tradition for more than 200 years. It is no coincidence that the original sponsor of FOIA legislation in the House, the late Rep. John Moss (D-Calif.), was one of the greatest congressional investigators.

I recognize that this is a simplified explanation for a complex subject. It took more than a decade of persistence before Congress passed FOIA, and some other countries with parliamentary systems have passed similar laws without a great struggle.

Our form of government is more conducive to an access law; a parliamentary system is not. Structural conflicts breed demands for openness, and we are all better off as a result.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at [email protected].


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