Saturday, 25 May 2024

Sunshine Week: Federal government still viewed as secretive

WASHINGTON, D.C. — For the first time in four years, public opinion about government secrecy has leveled off, although more than seven in 10 adults still consider the federal government to be secretive, according to the 2009 Sunshine Week survey by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University.


Sunshine Week takes place March 15 through 21. It puts the focus on the public's right to know about what its government is doing, at all levels.


Since 2006, the percentage of adults who believe the federal government to be somewhat or very secretive has grown steadily; from 62 percent in 2006 to 74 percent in 2008. The latest survey finds 73 percent characterizing federal government as secretive.


This mood is perhaps buoyed by the nearly eight in 10 adults who think President Barack Obama's Freedom of Information directive calling for a presumption of disclosure is the right thing to do.


“Trust in government has been on the decline for some time in the United States. The previous administration's disclosure policies certainly contributed to public skepticism,” said Jerry Miller, director of the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. “People now appear more optimistic, but still guarded, about President Obama and the current administration's disclosure practices under the Freedom of Information Act.”


As in previous years' surveys, people see their state and local governments as more open than the federal system. At the state level, 54 percent view government as open, 44 percent as secretive. People also are more trusting of local public officials. More than half, 56 percent, say their local government is very or somewhat open, with 44 percent rating it as very or somewhat open.


“The more open our government, the more inclusive the processes that impact our everyday lives,” noted Rich Boehne, president and chief executive officer of The E.W. Scripps Co.


Two-thirds of adults (67 percent) say they've heard of the federal Freedom of Information Act, and when told about it, slightly more (77 percent) think it is a good law. However, hardly anyone surveyed had ever used it. Nine in 10 adults (94 percent) have never requested information using a FOIA request. None of this, of course, dulls their skepticism about compliance with the law: 61 percent say they believe the federal government only sometimes, rarely or never obeys FOIA law.


“It's heartening there is a reversal in the downward trend of public confidence in the openness of the federal government,” said Andrew Alexander, co-chair of the American Society of Newspaper Editor's FOI Committee.


“But it's sobering to note that more than half of those surveyed said they still believe their government only sometimes, rarely or never abides by disclosure requirements mandated by law,” added Alexander, who is ombudsman at The Washington Post.


The survey of 946 adults was conducted by telephone from Feb. 16 through March 11 by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University under a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation. The survey has a margin of error of about 4 percentage points.


The survey has been commissioned by ASNE for Sunshine Week since 2006, Sunshine Week is a non-partisan open government initiative led by ASNE, with print, online and broadcast media; public officials; civic groups and non-profit organizations; public and special libraries; educators and students; religious leaders; and others. It is primarily funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


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