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Editorial: Open government now a bigger challenge

Editorial: Open government now a bigger challenge

One reason is that the electronic age has made it easier for government officials to communicate in secret

You’d think with all the new technology available at our fingertips, finding out information about our government’s activities these days would be easier than ever.

Governments can easily post an enormous amount of information on their websites, making it available to anyone with a computer and making it easier than ever for us to monitor government activities through a review of records.

But there are three main reasons why it appears to be getting more difficult, not less difficult, for citizens to monitor government activity and obtain information.

One reason is that the electronic age has made it easier for government officials to communicate in secret.

Whereas once people could only communicate in person or on the phone and could easily be caught violating open meetings laws, now they can meet through encrypted cell phones, using personal phone numbers on password-protected electronic devices to communicate and share government information off the grid through email and text.

Whereas once government bodies could be forced to demonstrate how they made decisions, such as why they chose to build a fire station in a particular location or how they determined which neighborhood sent its kids to a particular school, or how a court determined bail for a criminal suspect, those decisions are now made with the use of artificial intelligence.

Government bodies are now basing decisions on the use of complex computer algorithms that are jealously protected trade secrets.

The companies that produce these algorithms are being paid with taxpayer money and the decisions that are being made with their information are being executed with taxpayer money. Yet access to such information is heavily guarded from taxpayers.

Yes, more government documents than ever are being put online.

But increasingly, government business is being conducted not as much during regularly scheduled, well advertised public meetings, but in cyberspace, where it’s more difficult for reporters and the public to become aware of such meetings and to then find out what was actually said or done.

While the laws have been modified over time to deal with electronic records and communication, it’s difficult for them to keep up with the rapid changes in technology.

The second reason access to government continues to be a challenge is that in the end, we’re still dealing with government officials.

And nothing much has changed in the desire of some government officials to conduct the public’s business in secret in an effort to avoid scrutiny that might embarrass them,  expose illicit conduct or cost them votes. Now that government officials have better tools to avoid detection, the challenge to ensure transparency in government is greater than it’s ever been.

A third reason why it’s becoming more difficult to learn about your government is that as electronic communication and equipment has become a bigger part of our lives, people are making greater efforts to retain and regain their privacy.

Where once it would be relatively easy for a government official to keep his salary and compensation out of the public’s eye, citizens now can go online in an instant and find out exactly how much that person makes.

Cameras, many set up by government, ostensibly for law enforcement purposes, capture our every move in public.

When a journalist attempts to obtain footage from a street camera or a police officer’s body camera, the effort suddenly raises all sorts of privacy issues. We should be able to see police arrest a suspect or see someone doing a drug deal on a street corner.

But should we also be able to see inside people’s homes during a police raid or view the image of a crime victim a police officer is interviewing?

More and more, the public is rebelling against the exposure of any personal information, which is often mingled with information that the public has a right to know.

And legislators are supporting them, even when some of that information rightly belongs in the public domain.

For journalists and many dedicated members of the public, this all presents an every-day challenge. But for most members of the public, this high-tech game of cat-and-mouse flies under their radar.

That’s why each year, the journalism community celebrates what we call “Sunshine Week.” It’s one week a year in which we attempt to focus the public’s attention on the importance of maintaining an open government and the challenges we all face, journalists and regular citizens alike, in ensuring we know what’s going on.

It’s a chance to remind citizens of their rights under the law and to remind public officials of their obligations.

It’s a chance to shine the light on the great journalism that’s being conducted to expose government secrecy and malpractice.

It’s an opportunity to share the viewpoints of those on the front lines of the open government fight, people like Robert Freeman, director of the state Committee on Open Government; Brett Orzechowski, author, educator and open government advocate; Pam Fine, Knight chair for News, Leadership and Community at the University of Kansas; and other experts in the field.

We’ll be publishing their columns on our Opinion page this week, as well as sharing information through The Daily Gazette’s “Your Right to Know” blog on our website, www.dailygazette.com.

We hope you’ll take the opportunity to share your experiences, good and bad, and that you’ll take the time to learn about your rights under our government transparency laws.

President John F. Kennedy once said of secrecy in government, “The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and to secret proceedings.”

The only way to keep government open is for all of us to demand it and to fight for it.

Let the sun shine in.

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