There’s an epidemic in this country, and it’s not the latest flu.
This one is government secrecy: From federal agencies to local offices and everywhere in between, the public sector is making it harder and harder to obtain information under open records laws, even as advances in technology should be making it easier.
Some governmental entities do a good job of putting documents they want to release online, but when it comes to really important stuff—things they don’t want us to see—we’re often in for a fight.
The Better Government Association is forced to file multiple lawsuits a month to get the basic data we need to shine a light on government and hold public officials accountable.
That shouldn’t be necessary, but the hope that employees paid with our tax dollars will voluntarily stop trying to operate in secret is looking like a pipe dream, so we’ll continue to fight, and this is our message to evasive bureaucrats: We won’t let you get away with it, and we’ll challenge you every time.
The latest “dirty trick” in the anti-transparency game is the use of “private” email accounts by public officials to transact government business: The private account Sarah Palin used for public business was hacked a few years ago; Hillary Clinton managed to evade email protocols for years, and now that details are trickling out, it’s clear that in addition to disregarding the public’s right to know, she exercised poor judgment and may have put state secrets at risk.
On the local front, we now know former University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise used private emails for university business, which led to her resignation and the loss of a lucrative separation bonus.
Meanwhile, Governor Rauner’s education chief, Beth Purvis, used private emails in apparent violation of a “very firm” state policy. But instead of firing or disciplining her, and opening up the records for public scrutiny, the administration refuses to release those emails.
We recently sent FOIA requests to every state agency, and every City of Chicago department, asking for their policies on the use of private email for public business, along with any government business their top officials conducted on private accounts.That’ll help us develop reform proposals to end this unacceptable practice.
So far we’ve learned that private email policies are all over the map, but most of the agencies and departments have refused to turn over private-account emails, and that may prompt another round of lawsuits.
Let’s be clear: There’s no good reason for public officials to use private email for public business, and the claim that it’s a “convenience” is a crock.
In reality, it’s an insult to taxpayers who deserve good government and access to the information that helps them determine whether or not they’re getting it.
When officials try to hide information by using private email, or with other dirty tricks, they’re really saying they’re entitled to do whatever they want on our time and with our money.
We can’t afford that, and we shouldn’t tolerate it.
So we’ll draft a policy proposal aimed at clarifying the rules for private emails and cleaning up the mess.
Then we’ll put it in a BGA email to elected officials, and hit the “send” button. Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at email@example.com. Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga.