When he wasn’t busy founding Philadelphia, William Penn said some pretty smart things, such as, “governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them.” The proprietor was right. We (men and women) make our government go. It’s our government, and those in government work for us. But, one wouldn’t know that from the attitude toward simple requests for information from many who have held office or worked in government. “Ask and ye shall receive” has too often been replaced with “ask, and ye shall be interrogated or ignored.” That might just be changing.
When I worked for the city, I was often on the receiving end of informational requests from other officials, members of the media, and the public. It was always my clear understanding that it didn’t matter who was asking or what they intended to do with the material; if they asked for public information, my duty was to give the people what they want. But I was well aware that not every public servant saw his or her job that way. While I was inside government and after I left, my own requests for information were too often met with questions: “Who are you?” “What do you plan to do with that?” or “Why are you asking?”—as if there was a correct response I could give to generate a positive response and an incorrect response that would yield a negative response.
Our government is OUR government. The work our government produces is OUR work. That notion is not just common sense; it has been underscored across the nation as the law of the land.
Pennsylvania’s “right-to-know” law underscores the principal of public access to public records. This law, which went into effect in 2009, establishes the presumption that government records are public—regardless of what a citizen requesting those records plans to do with them—and forces government agencies to prove that there is a legal rationale for refusing any request for information.
In Philadelphia, the Nutter Administration recently updated the city’s open records policy and affirmed its commitment to comply with the Commonwealth’s “right-to-know” law. City agencies have an official open records officer who is assigned the responsibility for receiving, tracking and responding to requests. The city’s policy outlines the procedures for making and responding to those requests.
Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and I have joined others in criticizing officials in Philadelphia and Harrisburg who have preferred to keep the public in the dark. Ever since men and women first concealed their nakedness, individuals have done their best to not let it all hang out so it should be no surprise that, even with laws affirming the public’s right to know, some would try to conceal information or find a legal (at least in their eyes) fig leaf to hide behind.
In 2011, through a series of “right-to-know” requests, I was able to break down the spending of a few sample city departments to present what I called my “Full-Monty Budget Project.” I would have presented a you-can-see-it-all budget for many more agencies, but repeated requests for information were met with incompetence or the old run-around.
So it was with resignation to be disappointed that I put the Nutter administration’s newly underscored commitment to openness to the test with a new series of “right-to-know” requests last week. I can report that the open records officer with whom I spoke was not only helpful, but a true believer in the cause of open government. The official helped me craft my request to effectively access the information I was searching for and made helpful suggestions about the process to speed fulfillment of my request.
I’ll certainly totally believe it when I see it, but I am very optimistic about this experience.
If all our governmental employees embrace the ethos of openness and access to information (and follow the law), not only would that reaffirm the notion that it is OUR motion that makes our government go, it will create a much more productive relationship between government and the governed. With more information and data, we can help shape governmental decision-making and ensure that our government works for us HOW we want it to work for us.
Information is power. Power to the people!
Editor’s note: Brett Mandel plans to run for Philadelphia city controller in 2013.