Inadequate citizen access to government scientific information has had serious implications for the environment and human health. On September 19, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ new Center for Science and Democracy sponsored a webinar on “Dangers of Inadequate Information and Attacks on the Freedom of Information Act.” Speakers were asked: Why is lack of government transparency such a difficult problem to solve?
Archived webinar, Dangers of Inadequate Information and Attacks on the Freedom of Information Act, with audio and presentations by speakers.
Joe Davis, director of the Society for Environmental Journalists’ WatchDog Project, highlighted some recent examples where inadequate access to scientific information has had serious consequences. Daniel Schuman, policy counsel at the Sunlight Foundation, discussed the implications of attempts to regulate the Freedom of Information Act to restrict access to information.
From the Q&A portion of the webinar (transcription by CSW):
Q: What is the greatest barrier to getting this right? Why does government transparency remain such a challenge?
They’re afraid of the consequences of making information available. Information is power and one of the ways that the different levels of bureaucracy manipulate one another is by keeping information secret from one another, and certainly from the public as well. Particularly in the national security realm, but really anything that would be politically embarrassing, the government has a strong incentive to hold it tight. Although there may be political will in some within the White House — and there was one person in particular who was very good at pushing this, named Norm Eisen, although he departed two years ago — there are a lot of actors who are just not incentivized to do this. So that’s one.
Two, Congress needs to engage in a better oversight capacity. The more closely that Congress looks at the laws and the agency implementation of what they are supposed to do — in partnership often times, strangely enough, with the political leadership in the White House — you can actually get movement forward on these kinds of things. Transparency is an issue that a lot of political folks at least will give lip service to and often will advocate for as well. The sense that Congress gets involved in the game tends to be a plus not a minus.
I agree with both of those points. I have learned over the years that that, yes, the agencies are a huge force for secrecy and the White House can’t always control that enough. And you’re right also about Congress and congressional oversight. The congressional power of the subpoena is an immensely powerful lever for prying information loose. And I will just add that the power of the subpoena in civil litigation is also a powerful lever and I think one way to get at this information is to litigate. I hate to say that because we are already too litigious, but in my experience a lot agencies have kept stuff secret right up until the minute that somebody files a real suit in federal court and all of a sudden they cave.
And finally, I would just remind us all that the reason Congress and the agencies sometimes push for secrecy is because trade associations and industry lobbyists and other powerful civic organizations have a big stake in secrecy, often a financial stake — they may call it trade secrets — but they’re very busy lobbying the agencies to keep stuff secret and lobbying the White House to keep stuff secret. So when President Obama declared his transparency policy back in 2009, he might not have fully appreciated the buzz saw he would run into from the lobbyists.
On September 25, UCS, in partnership with the First Amendment Center and the Newseum, will hold a symposium on Improving Citizen Access to Government Scientific Information, at the Newseum in Washington, DC, with discussion by journalists, government officials, and nongovernmental activists. The symposium will be webcast.