Sunshine Week 2017: Where Does Public Access to Government Data Stand?

When it comes to transparency in government, some entities excel while others fall short, which means there's still work to be done.

by / March 14, 2017
Flickr/George Redgrave

Technology is to thank for many of the efficiencies enjoyed in the public sector in 2017. It has helped to improve transportation, health care, social services and access to public information. But there is still work to be done.

Sunshine Week is an opportunity for everyone to step back and look at the big picture of transparency in government. Where some in the public sector have earned high marks for responsiveness and accuracy, others have missed the mark and should re-evaluate their processes. The public demands it. 

In recent years, we have seen an explosion of open data portals and never-before-seen data sets making their way into the public eye, but other information must still be sought out. Public records requests, commonly called FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests, are the tools used by the watchdogs, reporters and the general public to get that information. 

Since 1967, federal law has dictated that federal agencies must provide requested information, unless it is protected by exemptions — such as being labeled as classified, relating to personnel issues, etc. All 50 states also have their own versions of public information law, many based off of the federal rules. 

According to, the number of federal agency requests has steadily increased since fiscal year 2011. The increase, unsurprisingly, has generated a substantial backlog, which has grown in step with the number of requests.

And perhaps nowhere is the public’s thirst for information more prevalent than at the state and local levels, where government and daily life most directly intersect. Across the United States, reports of good and bad interactions are well documented.

In Wisconsin, a 30 percent boost in records fulfillment signaled progress in a state where Gov. Scott Walker issued an order to spur improvement. But it hasn’t been all positive news for the state: One report from the Journal Sentinel highlighted the state’s use of “secretive” third-party software that enables its corrections department to determine the recidivism risks of inmates. Another software allows the Department of Revenue to better identify potential income tax fraud.

The criticism in these cases was not so much about the use software as it was about ignorance of the bias and a lack of human involvement inherent with each of the platforms.

In Washington state, reports about government responsiveness and transparency are mostly positive, but not beaming. As the Yakima Herald reported, the state’s open records law has roughly 500 exemptions, and transparency advocates are concerned more could be waiting in the wings.

Across the country, in Massachusetts, a 2017 update to the state’s 1973 version of public records law netted nearly immediate positive results for record seekers. According to the Cape Cod Times, in just the first three months of the year, state officials reported responding to more than 80 percent of the records appeals presented to them in the same timeframe last year.

Ohio, on the other hand, got slammed when state auditor Dave Yost cited 414 public entities in 2016 for failures to obtain training, adopt policies and make those policies publicly available, according to the Columbus Dispatch. The most at fault: smaller townships and government entities.

On the national level, there has also been a fair amount of attention paid to the transparency under the Trump administration. Immediately following the Jan. 20 Inauguration, the incoming administration struck several sections from the White House website, including references to climate change and the section pertaining to LGBT rights.

Many have criticized the president for his prolific, and often inflammatory, use of Twitter. Most recently, his seemingly unfounded tweets about former President Obama wiretapping his phones during the presidential election raised public and media concern, though no evidence was offered to back up the accusations.

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