Does Sunshine Week have a disinfecting effect?

8  April 2015

The United States was ranked 11th in the Open Government index published by the World Justice Project during the mid March Sunshine Week.

Sunshine Week has been celebrated for the last ten years across the US public sector, from Federal government to local authorities. The celebration takes place in the week encompassing 16 April, the birthday of President Madison, recognised as the father of the Bill of Rights.  There are weak echoes in some other countries.

There may be a less consistent application of access to government information in the United States than in the higher scoring states, but the United States Freedom of Information focus during Sunshine Week has a much greater profile than equivalent measures in most other places.  One illustration is an on line collation of FOI cartoons published in the media during the week.

Good intentions of course are not enough. The Federal Government response rate to FOI requests tells its own story – possibly putting the responsiveness of New Zealand agencies to Official Information requests into a new light!

US law specifies that agencies should respond by disclosing records within 20 business days of a FOIA request, unless subject to one of the exemptions relating to national security,  personal privacy, privileged communications, or maintenance of the law – not unlike New Zealand.

Published statistics on FOIA request handling indicate that in 2014,

  • about 49% were released in part,
  • about 9% were denied.

That leaves a backlog of nearly 160,000 unanswered information requests. This gave rise to increasing numbers of complaints about time delays and processing costs.

There were numerous activities coordinated across the US to raising the profile of open government and promoting processes for accessing information. Not that Congress seems to share the enthusiasm of civil society, with proposed amendments to the FOI Act making no progress.

A bill introduced this year seeks to promote openness and prohibit non disclosure except where there is ‘foreseeable harm’ to government interests – it would limit non disclosure to a 25-year maximum period, unless privilege is claimed as advice to government.

Bills were also introduced during Sunshine Week by which agencies would have to make information fully searchable, and more information would be made available on research funded by the Federal Government.

Little focus on open government during Sunshine Week

18 March 2014

This is “Sunshine Week” in the United States, adopted by media and public interest  groups as a marker of open government.  The week began with the celebration of Freedom of Information Day on 16  March, the anniversary of the birth of James Madison (Fourth US President), considered the Founding Father of Freedom of Information.

This enthusiasm for the ideal is rather more challenged in reality.  The annual World Press Freedom Index published last month indicates that press freedom in  the United States continues to deteriorate, slipping 13 places since the 2013 index to 46th of the 160 countries assessed.

Finland remains at the top of the Index where it has ranked since 2010, and the others in the top ten are Scandinavian and “Scandinavian-like” countries. New Zealand is in 9th place (slipping from 8th in 2013).  Australia is ranked 28th (down from 26th), and the United Kingdom is 33rd (down from 29th).  These movements may reflect the changed methodology used for the 2014 Index, although Denmark was the only other country  in the top ten rankings  that slipped a place.

The Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters without Borders, assesses the degree to which journalists and the media have freedom to report, and the commitment of national authorities to ensure respect for that freedom.

All New Zealand departments are being surveyed this week on their adoption of the 2011 Declaration on Open and Transparent Government. Responses are “expected to provide useful data on whether the release of high-value public data for re-use has become a business-as-usual practice, what mechanisms departments are using to find out what data their users identify as high value, and what impact that release has had.”  The findings will be reported to Cabinet later in the year.

2014 World Press Freedom Index

1 Finland
2 Netherlands
3 Norway
4 Luxembourg
5 Andorra
6 Liechtenstein
7 Denmark
8 Iceland
9 New Zealand
10 Sweden

US Sunshine Week marked by launch of government ethics-data website

12 March 2012
The White House is on key even if the rhythm somewhat variable!
President Obama’s first formal act in office was a direction about transparency. Over the last three years, delivering on expectations has been a challenge. Some enthusiasts of open government have been disappointed ( see post Obama’s open government is not transparent government ).
But this is “Sunshine Week” for the Federal Government and many State and local governments. In anticipation, the President launched an initiative to reinforce his commitment to transparency. He’d promised to create a centralised internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format.
On 8 March was launched to deliver on that promise. The site provides data on
  • White House Visitor Records
  • Office of Government Ethics Travel Reports
  • Lobbying Disclosure Act Data
  • Department of Justice Foreign Agents Registration Act Data
  • Federal Election Commission Individual Contribution Reports
  • Federal Election Commission Candidate Reports
  • Federal Election Commission Committee Reports
 These records disclose matters which can be seen as an influence on government decision-making. Critics will say that there is nothing new as the information is already available. Advocates will counter that the data is now accessible in one place, searchable with a google-like tool, and in a common format – described as “a uniform, digestible user- friendly format ”.  It will simplify research byanyone wanting to see what is happening in the Federal government, who is lobbying whom, what funding is being given to whose political campaign and so on.
Comparable disclosure in New Zealand is information on MP and Ministerial expenses, and on election expenses. As lobbying has no profile here as an inappropriate influence on decision-making, there is no equivalent of the provisions in the US ( and many other OCCD states ) to register and record activities of professionals accessing officials to promote particular interests.
According to the website of OMB Watch ( a group scrutinising the White House Office of Management and Budget ) Sunshine Week is falls on the week closest to 16 March which was the birthday of James Madison – 4th President, “father of the Constitution”, and author of the US Bill of Rights who championed the importance of checks and balances for good government).

Sunshine week in USA

15 March 2011

This is Sunshine Week in the United States. Participation has grown over the last 7 years as agencies across that country cooperate to promote public awareness and discussion about open government, information freedom and related issues. The results of a number of surveys have been released to encourage media attention and a focus on levels of transparency in government.

Although one of President Obama’s first acts on taking office was to call for greater openness, the findings of the 2011 Knight Foundation Open Government Survey, the ForeSee E-govt Transparency Index Survey 2010, and the Sunshine in Government initiative show that many agencies are not meeting the aspirations held of Freedom of Information Act. For example, only 6 of 90 Fedral agencies surveyed are seen as having taken concrete action on the “two steps” encouraged by the White House. Many were seen as doing nothing substantive. An analysis by Associated Press showed that despite agencies receiving approximately 12% more information requests in 2010 than the year before, agencies responded to many fewer, and took longer to release information. The Sunshine in Government initiative has found that agencies show no reticence about using the many statutory provisions that can exempt them from FOIA obligations.

An apparent reluctance to release official information or to release it in a timely way, seems to be a universal characteristic of government employees, otherwise committed to lawful behaviour. In New Zealand, the Ombudsmen in their 2010 Annual Report noted that about 20% of completed investigations into non disclosure complaints were justified. State servants need to be conscious always that the good government purpose of the Official Information Act . It is ” to increase progressively the availability of official information to the people of New Zealand in order

(i) to enable their more effective participation in the making and administration of laws and policies; and

(ii) to promote the accountability of Ministers of the Crown and officials,

and thereby to enhance respect for the law and to promote the good government of New Zealand”.

That is the essence of being “fair, impartial, responsible and trustworthy” as required by the State Services Commissioner’s code of conduct.




Freedom of Information Day

16 March 2013 

In the United States 16 March is recognised as Freedom of Information Day.  It falls during Sunshine Week, when the media and public interest groups are encouraged to promote awareness of the Open Government movement. By coincidence or design, 16  March was the birthday of James Madison, the fourth United States president, long regarded as the father of the Constitution, and now reflecting Sunshine Week, the father of freedom of information.  Once convinced by Jefferson of the need for amendments to the Constitution, Madison championed the Bill of Rights starting with the First Amendment guaranteeing the separation of church and state, and freedoms of speech, press, and assembly. 

A report published earlier this week assessed the extent to which the Obama administration has delivered on the commitment to Open Government that the President made on taking office. That commitment appears to have run out of momentum.   The aspiration to be the most transparent administration in history will require agencies to embrace openness, improve accessibility and reliability of published information during the second term, and to “dramatically transform” national security policies on secrecy.

There seems to be nothing unique in politicians promising government openness – until the media demands accountability for political compromises.  In New South Wales the premier who was outspoken on the need for transparency until taking office two years ago, now defends a reluctance to deliver on his promise of a new era of openness. 

And in New Zealand the Government’s response to the recommendations of the Law Commission for substantial changes in the Official Information Act will have disappointed those who seek a more compelling framework for open government.

International Anti Corruption Day

9 December 2011
Today is International Anti Corruption Day.
The results of numerous surveys suggest that there is an undiminished need to maintain public awareness of the causes and consequences of corruption. Awareness is a prophylatic in the same way as sunshine is a disinfectant.  That need for awareness may be as great in New Zealand as elsewhere.
The announcement this week by the Serious Fraud Office of arrests in the largest ever New Zealand fraud case, reportedly involving more than 1.7 billion suggests that opportunism is as likely to afflict enterprise in New Zealand as elsewhere. This confirms the Transparency International Global Corruption Barometer finding earlier this year,that 4% of New Zealanders said they had paid a bribe in the previous 12 months – higher than UK at 1% and Australia at 2%.
PricewaterhouseCoopers economic crime survey references to the New Zealand market echo the findings in the Auditor General’s Public Sector Fraud survey and both the Ernst and Young and the KPMG 2011 fraud barometers. The outcome is reflected in the list of convicted fraudsters published on the Verify website
The ‘good news” of course from the New Zealand perspective is that the Corruption Perceptions Index increased the rating given to the New Zealand public sector, which remains in the top slot. There appears to be a difference also in the nature of corruption in New Zealand and in many other OECD countries.
The 2011 BRIBEline report shows a fraud pattern with many consistencies across jurisdictions (USA, Brazil, Mexico, Ukraine, Russia,India and China.) More than half of bribes are made by people associated with government, more than half recur year on year, and nearly 20% of bribes are offered more than 100 times annually.  Three quarters of bribes are for cash, and nearly half are extortionate. Although in the US about half of bribes are for less than $5,000, 25% are for more than $50,000, a much greater percentagee than elsewhere.
An interesting publication recognising International Anti Corruption Day is on the Australian High Commission website.  This links to a DFAT compilation of Australian measures – largely offshore commitments – against corruption.  And following from yesterday’s blog there is no reference to any Australian interest in the Open Government Declaration or this week’s gathering in Brasilia.


Talking turkey … integrity conversations

27 July 2011

Marketing people say that there is no such thing as bad publicity.  Should that apply when promoting the importance of integrity?

New Zealanders have difficulty initiating conversations about ethics and trustworthiness. We all have views but it is awkward territory for us. That’s why anything which puts a focus on integrity is a good thing. A  former State Services Commissioner often said that “we must not be embarrassed to talk about goodness”.  Attention being given this week to hospitality received by Treasury officers will help that talk.  The next few weeks may well see the media cast a passing light on chief executives’ gifts, hospitality and expenses also, as disclosures for the first half of 2011 are published. The value is not only in the inherent worth that comes from openness, but the conversations that flow from what is disclosed; about considering not just the easy choices between right and wrong, but the conundrum of which “right way” is best and most likely to promote trust.

State servants should always be encouraged to talking about integrity. SSC guidance indicates that such encouragement is a core role of managers – it is part of modelling and reinforcing organisational culture. That’s how we imbue the spirit of service.

The US Office of Government Ethics may well be sensitive about media attention at present.  Every 18 months it coordinates a conference for  ethics officers from across the federal government.  Because of their role, the majority are Washington based. This year’s conference is in Florida.  It is programmed from Tuesday to Thursday. These characteristics have invited criticism; the venue is a “magnificent golf and spa resort”, the programme anticipates a travel day on either side of the conference, there is the  opportunity for accompanying family to enjoy the attractions of Orlando, and so on. It is of course a national conference of interest to officials from parts of the US as pleasing as Florida, and it is the hurricane season. But these may be rationalisations.

The Washington Post has belittled the ethics – the “problematic optics” – of flying 540 officials from Washington to the sunshine (and 280 from elsewhere) for bonding and cross pollination.

Last month the media picked on a disclosure by the Office of Government Ethics that it spent almost 45% of its travel budget on international commitments. It criticised the ethics of looking offshore when the agency’s responsibilities are in the United States. The explanation that much of the travel was undertaken on behalf of the State Department’s international profile and refunded by that Department got lost in the noise.  But that noise is important. It reflects concern; it confirms that people care; it sets the public expectation.

Public sector transparency raises public awareness.  Public awareness strengthens trustworthy behaviour.  Trustworthy behaviour reinforces confidence in government. The outcome enhances the rule of law and good government. And that’s what we all want.

Gossip about questionable practices in agencies gets us thinking about what we should be doing.  It promotes conversations. Perhaps any publicity is good publicity.