Sunshine Week 2013 - March 10-16
Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and all others interested in the public’s right to know. Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger.
To encourage teachers to review the principles of Sunshine Week, open government and freedom of information with their students, this year the New York News Publishers Association Newspaper in Education Program has decided to focus on “Cyber Sunshine” – the ability of government to embrace the use of technology to make relevant documents readily and easily accessible to the public. To some extent, “Cyber Sunshine” already exists. Many reports are posted online and can be accessed by the public. However, compared to the amount of data collected by state and local government it’s fair to say we’re living in a land that’s still mostly-cloudy.
The five-part series of features highlights just a few of the websites with reports and other data that we think might be of interest to students and the general public. The topics include:
• What is “E-Government”? – A brief summary of our “Cyber Sunshine” focus
• Vehicle Safety – Highway Safety Data
• Food Safety – Restaurant Inspection Reports
• School Safety – Violence and Disruptive Incident Reports
Remember, whether you specifically need to ask for the information or if the documents are already posted online –
It’s Your Right to Know!
Click here to download the 5 Sunshine Week features for 2013 (one part pictured here at right) and here to download the 17 page set of graphic organizers (both in PDF format).
Posted below, with permission, an editorial that ran in the Poughkeepsie Journal on Friday, January 4, 2013 that illustrates the importance of FOI, "proactive disclosure" and the right to know.
Better government comes through informed citizens
People conduct so much of their business online these days, whether through a home computer or a mobile device, that it has become second nature.
It's part of our DNA, our culture, and there is no going back.
That's why it is imperative for governments on all levels to ensure they are not falling behind the technology curve, especially when it comes to allowing the public to look at documents, to become more fully involved as active citizens.
Above all, the onus always must be on the government to make these documents available from the get-go - and not wait until someone asks or files a Freedom of Information request to get them to comply with the law.
The state's Committee on Open Government understands all this, which is why, in its annual report released late last month, it says New York laws should be changed to promote "proactive disclosure" by state and local governments.
"Proactive disclosure." That has a nice ring to it.
To that end, the committee is calling on the state Legislature to require all local and state agencies, to the extent possible, to make records available in electronic form on the Internet.
Governments at times will resist such changes, arguing, in part, about the cost of compliance. Yet they should consider the costs and workforce resources involved in not addressing these matters up front.
Under the latter scenario, they are left to sift through considerable Freedom of Information requests made by the public, including the media. The need to comply with such requests would be reduced greatly if public officials would make these documents available from the outset.
Slowly over years, the state has made good changes to its Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws. For instance, last February, the state's Open Meetings Law was updated, requiring governments to make some records available in advance of meetings. This should help the public follow discussions as their government officials consider resolutions and regulations at meetings. But so much more needs to done.
While many reforms have been made under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state is still undeniably secretive in its deliberations about the state budget and other important matters. The state should be held to the same standard that it is working to hold localities to.
The responsibility should be thrust upon all levels of government to post relevant documents and conduct business in open sessions unless they can show an undue burden or legal exception in complying. Too often, the public is left to argue why a meeting or document should be open. That is diametrically at odds with how an open, robust government should work, and the public should continue to insist and push the state to change the focus here.
Poughkeepsie Journal, Friday, January 4, 2013
Click here to download graphic organizers and a list of web resources for teachers about Sunshine Week.
Here is commentary about the importance of Freedom of Information from Robert Freeman, Executive Director of the Committee on Open Government.
Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
Committee on Open Government
Department of State
FOIL Saves Lives!
When government officials complain about the burdens associated with dealing with requests under the Freedom of Information Law, known by many in New York as “FOIL”, I’ve suggested that they stop complaining, because FOIL saves money. Consider this: when a government agency solicits bids, and potential vendors or service providers use FOIL to obtain the existing contract or the winning bid used to award the current contract, what they’re thinking is, “government, we can make you a better deal.” Those better deals for state agencies, counties, cities, towns and school districts save the government and taxpayers millions.
Perhaps more striking is a recent article published by the Albany Times Union that led to the conclusion that FOIL saves lives.
In the late 1980’s, the former Commissioner of the Department of Health (DOH) was concerned about the wide range of death rates for heart bypass surgery at hospitals in New York. He believed that quality issues were significant and had his staff develop a cardiac surgery registry to track patient mortality by age and health in order to evaluate doctors’ performance.
When the first report was prepared, DOH disclosed the data as it pertained to hospitals. A reporter for Newsday, the daily Long Island newspaper wanted to go further and requested “physician-level data” from DOH under FOIL. The request was denied, and I was asked for an advisory opinion.
I have been fortunate to have worked for the Committee on Open Government, a unit of the New York State Department of State that was created as part of our FOIL, since its inception in 1974. Our primary function involves providing guidance and advisory opinions to anyone having questions regarding public access to government information in New York. Our law, like others, authorizes an agency to withhold records when disclosure would constitute “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” My contention was that the data did not involve “personal” information, but rather that it pertained to physicians acting in their professional capacities. Newsday used the opinion when it challenged the denial of access in court, and the court agreed that the data must be disclosed.
Sometimes we don’t learn of the fruits of our labors, or in this case, the benefits of disclosure for years. New York became the first state in the nation to release death rates for each hospital and physician, and “the public scrutiny was motivating.” A cardiologist at the Albany Medical College said that “Physicians are Type A personalities”, and that “they want to do the best thing for their patients, so they take this stuff very seriously.”
As a result of disclosure of the data, the Times-Union reported that some doctors were “forced out, while some left voluntarily when they saw their numbers stacked up against those of their peers.” A DOH official said that “hospitals have even told us that they were glad they had this report to use as ammunition.”
As stated by the current Commissioner at DOH, “This is probably one of the most underreported and most valuable pieces of work that the Department of Health has been doing for decades and the people of New York have benefited as a result – and no one knows of it.” No one, that is, but readers of the recent article, and more importantly, hospitals and doctors.
Sometimes the benefits of FOIL are widely known, but sometimes they’re not, even when, as in this instance, FOIL has saved lives.
The illustration below is an editorial cartoon used here with permission created by Adam Zyglis for Sunshine Week in 2006. All rights reserved. Adam works for member newspaper, The Buffalo News.
This page was last updated 3/5/2013.
Content created for Sunshine Week 2012 is still available for download. Click here to access the eight newspaper in education features (3 column x 8 inches).
If you have any questions or comments, please contact Mary Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (518) 449-1667.
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