11 key principles of government information

Freedom of Information Day

President James Madison wrote, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Governing ourselves means making hard choices, and the most powerful tool we have to make good decisions is information. That’s why we celebrate Freedom of Information (FOI) Day on March 16, the birthday of James Madison, who is widely regarded as the Father of the Constitution and as the foremost advocate for openness in government.

According to the American Library Association (ALA), there are 11 key principles of government information:

1. Access to government information is a public right that must not be restricted by administrative barriers, geography, ability to pay, or format. Informed citizens help ensure government accountability and help balance the power of government.

2. The government has a responsibility to collect, maintain, and disseminate information to the public.

3. Government information regardless of form or format should be disseminated in a manner that promotes its usefulness to the public.

4. Depository library programs must be preserved to provide equitable, no-fee access to government information for the public.

5. The cost of collecting, collating, storing, disseminating, and providing for permanent public access to government information should be supported by appropriation of public funds. I understand that some documents are sensitive, but forms can be designed to automatically block out personal information.

6. The role of private publishers should complement government responsibilities in the collection, storage, and dissemination of public information. Private sector involvement does not relieve the government of its information responsibilities.

7. Government information policy must ensure the integrity of public information.

8. It is essential to safeguard the right of the government information user to privacy and confidentiality.

9. Government has an obligation to preserve public information from all eras of the country’s history, regardless of form or format.

10. Government has a responsibility to provide a comprehensive cumulative catalog of government information regardless of form or format.

11. Copyright or copyright-like restrictions should not be applied to government information.

In Hawaii, we are empowered by the Hawaii Uniform Information Practices Act, which governs access to public records; and the Hawaii Sunshine Law, which sets requirements for public meeting notices, meetings, and minutes. These laws help us watchdog the government and encourage citizen participation. However, Hawaii voters are denied the rights of initiative (the power to vote on citizen-generated new legislation), referendum (the power to vote on existing legislation), and recall (the power to remove and replace public officials) – though all three rights have been proposed in the 2014 legislative session.

There is also the separate but related issue of journalistic protection against revealing confidential sources. Currently, Hawaii doesn’t have a “shield” law for investigative journalists, reporters, and bloggers. There are carryover measures in the House and Senate, as well as two proposed bills in the 2014 Hawaii legislature: SB2974 would re-enact the existing but expired law and “make permanent the limited news media privilege against the compelled disclosure of sources and unpublished sources.” SB3096 would establish “the limited news media privilege against the compelled disclosure of sources and unpublished sources.”

Do we have the knowledge and tools we need to govern ourselves? How would you rate government transparency and government record-keeping in Hawaii? Have you ever requested public records under the Freedom of Information Act? If you have, was the information available, affordable, and received in a reasonable amount of time? 

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