By Paul Wolf
Every organization has a culture, a predominating attitude and behavior by which it operates. While government officials are supposed to serve the interests of the public, many government entities operate with a culture of secrecy.
Why is it that government officials frequently resist making information available to the public? According to Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, “I have to suggest to people in government all the time that embarrassment is not one of the grounds for withholding records.”
Whether due to embarrassment or other reasons, there have been several recent instances of local governments refusing to disclose information to the public. In August 2010, The Buffalo News in frustration wrote an editorial with a headline directed to Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, which stated, “Mayor, stop stonewalling and release records.” The News editorial was in regard to the travel records of Timothy Wanamaker, a former high-level city employee who was arrested on federal charges and charged with using public dollars for personal expenses.
Other examples of the government culture of secrecy highlighted in recent Buffalo News headlines include:
“Lawyer fees in stadium lease talks called secret.”
“Firm, county mum as disclosure is urged.”
“Intolerable secrecy: Buffalo schools, Town of Hamburg hiding critical information from the public.”
“Hamburg settlement shrouded in secrecy.”
“Town won’t disclose discipline in police case.”
As citizens, we are entitled to and deserve government that is open and transparent. Local governments across the country have proactively adopted an Open Government Policy that addresses:
• Transparency: Steps the local government will take to operate openly, and to publish more information on-line.
• Public participation: How opportunities for public participation in government will be enhanced and expanded.
• Collaboration: Among departments, the private sector, non-profits, educational institutions and the public.
Examples of what type of information can and should be available to the public online include:
• Building and demolition permits.
• Crime statistics.
• Health Department inspections.
• Real-time public transportation schedules.
• Copies of government contracts.
Encouraging local governments to adopt an Open Government Policy with specific goals is one step that can be taken to address the secretive culture that exists in many local governments.
Paul Wolf is an attorney and the president of the Center For Reinventing Government.