Patrice McDermott: We need more sunlight
Less than one-third of Americans view elected officials as “honest,” and a lack of transparency lies at the core of this distrust. Government secrecy has been a driving force behind many of the most salient political issues in this election cycle, ranging from disclosures on Flint’s water crisis, to debates on revelations made by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, to questions on campaign finance, and more. Secrecy and lack of disclosure are raised frequently in the midst of a high-profile controversy, but candidates are rarely asked about their underlying open government beliefs and the specific policy proposals they would implement to strengthen the accountability of government to the public.
A broad coalition of open government advocates, privacy groups, civil rights defenders, and news editors have crafted a collection of open-government-related questions that should be posed to all candidates for federal office. We’re sharing the questions across the country, and, as the election draws near, we hope that editorial boards, reporters covering the 2016 campaigns, debate moderators, and interested members of the public who have an opportunity to speak with candidates present these questions to get the candidates on the record.
A fundamental first question on transparency: what policies would candidates implement to guarantee and advance public access to government information and sources? This question is being promoted by a coalition of journalist groups, including the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of News Editors, as well as the OpenTheGovernment.org coalition.
Other pressing questions relate to transparency and accountability for law enforcement – namely, how would candidates support measures to improve the accuracy and consistency of use-of-force data from law enforcement across the country? A recent study has shown that police departments with restrictive use-of-force policies – including comprehensive reporting requirements – have fewer officer-involved shootings. Common sense policies such as these seem self-evident, yet our candidates have not been faced directly with questions about what they would put the weight of their office behind.
The questions also relate to transparency in trade negotiations, such as the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which has been shrouded in secrecy. Both presidential candidates have stated that they are against the TPP in its current form, yet neither candidate has been asked about what she or he would do to ensure future trade deals are not conducted in such extensive secrecy – and would thus be subject to greater public oversight.
As this list consists of questions is related to federal open government issues, it is most relevant to candidates for President, United States Senate, or the United States House of Representatives. We also encourage the use of the questions as a model for those interested in transparency when speaking with candidates for state or local office.
Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1913 that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” and this still rings true today. Transparency is vital for democratic participation and a necessary first step toward open and accountable government. Before Americans cast their votes this November, we have a right to know where candidates stand on making the government more open and accountable to the public. They won’t answer if you don’t ask, though – so, ask early and often.
Patrice McDermott is executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org.
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