Environmental Information Initiative: “An Agenda to Strengthen Our Right to Know”

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A broad coalition of groups and individuals active in protecting human and environmental health has produced a comprehensive list of policy recommendations to greatly strengthen government transparency and community engagement in decisions that affect public health and the environment. Climate Science Watch is among the 112 organizations that have endorsed this action plan for the federal government, An Agenda to Strengthen Our Right to Know: Empowering Citizens with Environmental, Health, and Safety Information

The report, drafted as part of the Environmental Information Initiative project, was released May 10 and is posted online at http://www.ombwatch.org/eiirecommendations. OMB Watch, which coordinated the development of the report, has delivered copies to officials in the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of Management and Budget, and the White House.

Endorsing Statement:

We strongly support this report’s overall goals of creating government policies and procedures that strengthen the public’s right to know about environmental and public health concerns and better engage members of the public.

Overall, the recommendations in this report represent a significant step toward creating a nation whose residents have ready access to the information needed to protect the environment, themselves, their families, coworkers, and communities, and to hold government and industry accountable while being provided with sufficient opportunities to participate constructively in public policy decisions.

The Environmental Information Initiative was launched in early 2010 to bring together a broad range of public interest advocates who would identify the obstacles confronting our right to know and craft policy changes that would improve public access to information and participation in policy decisions. OMB Watch compiled the report following a year of work that culminated in a conference of almost 100 environmental, health, and safety advocates held in November 2010.

Sean Moulton, OMB Watch's Director of Federal Information Policy, said, "Many of the recommendations laid out in the report are ambitious, but they are also needed. Environmental and right-to-know advocates believe that much more information, presented in more searchable and usable formats, is necessary in order to adequately protect Americans' environmental health."

From the Introduction:

Public engagement and access to environmental and public health information are vital democratic tools. A lack of government openness impairs everything from preventing – and cleaning up – oil spills to protecting children from toxic chemicals. The need to break down information barriers and bring the public back into the policymaking process is greater than ever. A lack of access to quality information – and to policymakers – hurts people and the landscapes we cherish and depend on. …

Citizens have long shown that advances in environmental protections are possible with a more open and accountable government, better information, and greater public engagement. The policy recommendations outlined in this report are concrete steps policymakers can take to begin to fix these issues. …

One of the priority themes that emerges from the numerous recommendations developed in the report is this:

Public participation has to start with the government.

While there are many communities, organizations, and individuals across the country who are interested and concerned about environmental issues, the first steps to getting those people to engage must come from the government. Agencies have much to do to foster conditions where meaningful public participation can thrive. Greater outreach to impacted communities is sorely needed. Empowering communities with tools and information can alleviate some of the strain on regulatory agencies caused by limited resources. Actively bringing citizens into the processes of protecting the environment is a promising strategy.

Another is this:

Environmental justice must always be considered.

Minority and low-income communities have historically borne a far greater proportion of environmental harm than other communities, a situation that persists despite a welcome increase in discussions about this problem at high levels of government. The cause of environmental justice appears consistently throughout the following recommendations and should be regarded as a priority by all levels of government. Several recommendations address the need to improve the scope of equity-based data collection, identify sources and methods for obtaining and analyzing environmental justice data, and widely disseminate these data and their sources.

The 100-page report covers many topics. A few that are of particular interest to Climate Science Watch:

In the chapter on “Improving Access to Information”

A healthy democracy demands that citizens and communities have unfettered access to public information held by our government. Combined with effective regulatory authorities, information is an essential public policy tool for protecting citizens and the ecosystems on which we depend. The government has a duty to identify and provide, in understandable and affordable ways, high-quality information needed by the public to make decisions affecting our lives, families, communities, and nation. The following recommendations address several priority areas where improvements to information access would greatly assist efforts to protect people and ecosystems.

Public Affairs – Media Relations

Excessive message control over agency staff and restricted access to government experts have hindered the public’s right to know. The media often acts as an intermediary or messenger between the government and the public, who often do not have the time to sift through government documents and websites, even for issues they care about. Journalists have complained of being paired with “minders” from public affairs offices during media interviews, constricting the free exchange of information. The vulnerability of the media was shockingly illustrated during the months-long BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Journalists encountered numerous obstacles to covering the catastrophe, including being denied physical access to impacted areas, police detention, threats of arrest and fines, and intimidation. Access to government experts must be improved in order to inform and engage citizens about environmental issues. These recommendations are consistent with the Dec. 17, 2010, memo from Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren on scientific integrity and the presidential March 9, 2009, memo on the same subject.

Create New Public Affairs Office Policies

Agencies must develop or enhance existing policies governing media communications including advisories, press releases, statements, interviews, news conferences, and other related media tools. [See Union of Concerned Scientists’ model media policy.] The new policies should:

  • Define the role of the Public Affairs Office, emphasizing the responsibility to coordinate and facilitate contact between journalists and requested agency staff, but not acting as “gatekeepers” of information.
  • Describe the Public Affairs Office’s responsibility to respond to media inquiries in a timely, complete manner.
  • Outline a plan for disseminating the media policy to agency scientists and researchers and conduct trainings in effective media communication that emphasize scientific openness.
  • Include severe penalties against public affairs officers who deliberately obfuscate, misstate, distort, or lie to members of the media or the public.

Develop Communications Policies for Agency Experts

Agencies must develop, with public involvement, a comprehensive policy governing how agency scientists and experts can interact with members of the public, including, but not limited to, media professionals. Many agency scientists report that they are not able to speak freely about their research. Increasing online access to data is only a first step. The public frequently requires expository information provided by experts. As one advocate states, “Placing data sets on the website only gets us part of the way to government transparency. The next big step will involve changing the culture of the department and allowing its experts to provide for context and interpretation of those data sets.”6

A communications policy should be implemented consistently throughout all agency offices, regions, and programs, and should incorporate these principles:

  • Scientists and researchers may freely express their personal views, under certain conditions analogous to the freedoms and limitations established for teachers by academia.7 Government scientists, researchers, and other experts are entitled to freely discuss the areas of their expertise, but they should be certain to express that they are not speaking for the agency or the U.S. government unless so authorized. Government scientists and researchers should be free to publish dissenting views in final reports, similar to the publication of dissenting views in U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
  • A scientist or researcher has the right to review, amend, and comment publicly on the final version of any document or publication that significantly relies on his or her research, identifies him or her as an author or contributor, or purports to represent his or her scientific opinion.
  • Agency employees should have clearly defined responsibilities in working with impacted people, the public, and the media.

Create a Directory of Scientific, Technical, and Bureaucratic Experts

To foster easy access to technical and policy expertise both in government and elsewhere, agencies should create a directory to serve as a searchable database of experts who can be contacted by the public. Agencies should include on their websites a comprehensive, user-friendly, searchable directory allowing the public to easily locate and contact specific agency employees based on their job duties and/or areas of subject-matter expertise. The directory would include contact information and the types of expertise held by agency staff scientists. This directory could possibly include nongovernmental members of advisory committees and volunteers from the private sector, as well. The directory should be as comprehensive as possible and include as many staff experts as possible. Agency experts who wish to be included should have the ability to add their names and relevant data.

The directory would provide citizens in need of technical, scientific, and regulatory advice a way to connect with experts, including chemists, medical doctors, geologists, toxicologists, ecologists, and biologists, as well as experts on the legal and regulatory requirements of statutes such as Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the proposed rulemakings under such statutes. The data must be audited regularly to ensure up-to-date, accurate listings.

In the chapter on “Empowering Communities”

Providing high-quality environmental information to the public is a crucial first step toward a more open and accountable government. However, access to information goes beyond just posting databases online. Another key component is the provision of tools and opportunities that equip community members to play an active role in protecting environmental and public health. This includes providing access to planning and scoping meetings, holding informational hearings and public listening sessions, and providing training to build the capacity of community groups to effectively use government data.

Plain-Language Communications

The people of the United States are a diverse group, comprised of individuals with a broad range of educational backgrounds and experiences. However, threats to public health, workplaces, and ecosystems affect us all. It is crucial that the information we need to protect ourselves and the opportunities to petition government officials are clearly communicated to and understood by everyone, no matter what their background. …

[A]gencies must provide information along a full spectrum of formats, from complete, “raw” data sets in downloadable formats to brief summaries of agency proposals in the plain-language format described in this subsection, and various levels of detail between the two. All formats are needed and actively used by the public. Simple summaries and plain-language communications should not be viewed as a substitute for disclosing information in detailed, complete formats. …

Provide Environmental and Public Health Information in Easy-to-Understand Language
Agencies should provide information in plain, easy-to-understand language that concisely interprets scientific, technological, legal, and bureaucratic language. Agencies should consider creating work groups to develop standards for plain-language communications so that all communities’ information needs are met. Such standards should include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • Information should be presented in a context that explains what the information is, why it is important, and how it may be used.
  • Agencies should clearly present information in a relevant context, explain how it affects the public, and suggest steps the public might take to protect public and environmental health.
  • Summaries of documents should indicate where in the document key pieces of information may be found.

… Agencies should be sure that, in addition to scientific and technological data, information on how agencies operate and the laws that govern their actions are explained in simple and accurate language so all people may be armed with the knowledge of how the wheels of government turn and what opportunities for involvement are available.

 On Whistleblower Protections:

Whistleblowers have played vital roles in protecting environmental and public health by exposing waste, fraud, or abuse within the government and at industrial facilities. Whistleblowers have defended agency science from political distortions, raised alarms over pesticide safety, disclosed shoddy inspections of oil rigs, and revealed numerous other activities that threaten health and the environment. The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, which was enacted to protect federal employees against reprisals for the exposure of government inadequacies, has been weakened by judicial decisions and administrative policies. Although new legislation is needed to permanently establish increased protections and new whistleblower rights, such as a right to jury trials, much can also be done administratively. 146

Make Whistleblower Protections a Priority

The administration should issue new directives to clarify to all agencies the expectation that whistleblowers be robustly defended from reprisals, that whistleblower claims be dealt with quickly and fairly, and that there will be zero tolerance for whistleblower harassment. Punitive processes for managers who retaliate against whistleblowers in their performance reviews should be established. Moreover, the Labor Department should improve its communication to local and state governments – and the private sector – on worker rights provided under current whistleblower statutes.

Restore and Modernize the Whistleblower Protection Act

Congress should pass legislation that grants whistleblowers the right to a jury trial in federal court; strengthens whistleblower protections for federal contractors; provides whistleblowers the right to be made whole, including compensatory damages; and strengthens due process rights. …

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