Why it faces problems—and how experts say they could be solved
People must have access to reliable public information to make informed decisions and hold their elected officials accountable. Without transparent government at all levels—local, state and federal—representative democracy is threatened. For a generation, presidents of both parties have in different ways tightened controls on government information. “The natural progress of things,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation commissioned this study to better understand the landscape involving public access to government records by gathering information and insights from 336 freedom of information experts—journalists, advocates, record custodians, technology companies, scholars and others. In all, from December 2016 through
January 2017, 108 experts were interviewed and 228 surveyed online. The study is not representative of journalists or society as a whole, but rather a cross section of those who deal with public record laws routinely. They are the active members, and in some cases the leaders, of America’s freedom of information community.
Freedom of information is not decided only in Washington, D.C. All levels
of government are involved, bringing into view a diversity of government officials. Our objective was to canvass experts to identify barriers to information access and possible solutions, looking broadly at the law, public education, networking and new technology.
We found dissatisfaction, uncertainty and worry.
- MANY EXPERTS SAY ACCESS IS WORSE TODAY COMPARED WITH FOUR YEARS AGO: About half of the 228 experts surveyed online reported that access to state and local records has gotten worse during the past four years (41 percent said it stayed the same, and 13 percent said it has gotten better), and 41 percent said access to federal records has worsened. “What I hear from reporters in Washington and my students is that exemptions are being used in way too many cases and delays are still very long,” said Leonard Downie, former Washington Post executive editor and current Weil Family Professor of Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “I hope the door doesn’t get shut tighter.”
- NEARLY 4 IN 10 SEE A RISE IN DENIALS: Though most respondents (57 percent) said denials have stayed the same during the past four years, 38 percent said they have been denied records at any level of government more frequently, and only 6 percent said denials have decreased. Rising denials are particularly acute at the local level, where news organizations have cut some 20,000 journalists since the 2007-09 recession. Timothy Bolger, managing editor of the independent online Long Island Press, said he did not realize the extent of the problem until he conducted an FOI audit of nearly 200 municipalities on Long Island, N.Y., in 2016. “This past year has really opened my eyes. There’s a good number of agencies that just don’t follow the law. I hadn’t paid that much attention before, but I didn’t realize how much of it was an epidemic.”
- OVERWHELMINGLY, EXPERTS PREDICTED THAT ACCESS WILL GET WORSE: Nearly 9 out of 10 predicted that access to government will worsen because of the new presidential administration. “I think it’s going to be a backyard brawl,” said Ted Bridis, investigations editor for The Associated Press in Washington, D.C. Over the past several weeks, nonprofit organizations scrambled to save data purged from federal websites and listed the many restrictions placed on communications with the public.
This report lays out problems with freedom of information and synthesizes solutions aimed at making freedom of information laws work as their creators intended—as an open, honest way for the public to know what its government is doing.