9th April 2000

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Transparency in Government

How American citizens influence public policy
In the United States and in other democracies, citizens can influence government on a daily basis, not just on election day.
By Ellen M. Katz

"A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." - former U.S. President James Madison, 1822.

The heart of American democracy - and of any democracy - is meaningful, active participation by its people in government decisions.

The soul of such a system is the ability of ordinary citizens to hold government officials accountable for their actions. Known as "transparency," this essential democratic process takes many forms, but all allow concerned citizens to see openly into the activities of their government, rather than permitting these processes to be cloaked in secrecy.

The principles underlying transparency in government activity are embodied in the fundamental tenets that have guided the United States since its founding, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And, over time, a body of law, regulation, and practice has grown up that makes it easy for ordinary citizens to have access to some important meetings of Government officials, to request and receive government documents, and to have input into government decisions and rulemaking.

To various degrees, the principles of transparency have taken root at the local, state, and federal level.

In the United States, transparency in judicial proceedings, much of which evolved from English common law, has generally provided the right to a public trial. Likewise, the U.S. Congress has over the course of its history opened itself both to influence from many groups of citizens and organizations, and to comment from knowledgeable experts, officials, and citizens during "hearings" on experts, on proposed legislation or on important issues.

In addition, transparency can be found at work in the various federal government "executive branch" agencies that report to the president of the United States. From food, to automobiles, to the environment, everyday lives of citizens are touched in many ways by decisions issued by these agencies. And, increasingly, there are numerous ways for individuals to have an impact on policymaking procedures of the executive branch. Some groups attempt to influence all three branches of the federal government - the judicial, legislative, and executive, simultaneously.

In general, U.S. citizens are free to participate in the political process as much or as little as they wish. Some people become deeply immersed in causes they believe in, either as individuals or, frequently, through groups formed to advocate one or more causes. Others rarely get involved or voice their concerns only when they have individual concerns.

Letting the Sun In

The most basic way for citizens to hold leaders responsible is by voting in elections and by serving on juries in open courtroom proceedings. But these are not the only ways. In the United States and in other democracies, citizens can influence government on a daily basis, not just on election day. Numerous other opportunities can, and should, exist to ensure that both elected and non-elected public officials remain accountable to the people.

In the United States, when executive branch officials get together to conduct government business, they are often required to announce their meetings in advance and to hold them in forums that are open to the public. The law underlying this practice, a federal statute dubbed the "Sunshine Act," enacted in 1976, makes for better, more informed decisions. What's more, the policies that result are perceived as fairer since they reflect broad input from many interested parties. There are similar laws throughout the country at the state level.

In many situations, citizens are allowed to not just attend public meetings, but to comment during the proceedings. For instance, before the Environmental Protection Agency made a decision on a proposed regulation concerning pollution in 1999, it held a series of hearings around the country and listened to hours of testimony. At one session in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a citizen named Randy Hester expressed his feelings, probably shared by many attending the meeting: "As an American, I feel it's one of my inalienable rights to have a voice and I'm so very glad to have this opportunity today."

A popular way for citizens to express their viewpoints is by writing letters or sending electronic messages to elected officials. It's not unusual for members of Congress (a senator or a congressman) to receive thousands of pieces of mail a day about a compelling issue. People organized to promote a cause initiate many letter-writing campaigns.

These groups can be made up of business, religious, or labour representatives, or they can be dedicated to issues such as protecting the environment or human health. They also visit legislators to "lobby" them personally. Transparency in American government can also be found in the rules imposed on people who run for public office.

By law, candidates who want to be elected to Congress or the presidency must file detailed reports disclosing how much money they raise and spend. Candidates are required to disclose all individuals and groups who give them contributions of more than $200.

There is also a law limiting the amount of money anyone can give directly to a candidate.

Ideally, the purpose of these regulations is to restrict the influence wealthy people and powerful groups have over politicians. Similarly, financial statements are required of federal leaders once they are elected or appointed. On these statements, high officials must disclose the nature and extent of their financial assets to assure there are no conflicts of interest with the job.

Financial disclosure statements are made available to the public and the media, which is shielded from government censorship by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Americans use all of these methods of accountability so they can intelligently exercise their right to vote. And, over the years, thanks both to new laws and improved access to information, it has become easier for citizens, in particular, to obtain information from executive branch agencies and to have influence over those agencies' actions that affect the public.

Requesting Records

Through a federal statute enacted in 1966, Americans can ask for copies of records maintained by various federal government agencies, departments, and the military. Since it was enacted, the "Freedom of Information Act" has become an extremely popular information tool. Historians, journalists, educators, private companies, citizen interest groups and ordinary people have used this law to examine documents that would otherwise have been kept secret. Laws that are somewhat similar exist at the state level.

Over the years, this important law has helped citizens make public records about events that Americans want to know more about, such as the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the tragic 1986 accident involving the Challenger spaceship.

Now, the Internet has made reading some of this information even easier.

Many documents are posted electronically by interest groups and the government. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation makes frequently requested records from its case files available on its Web Site (

"The Freedom of Information Act enables Americans to get greater access to information on the activities and operations of the U.S. government," explains Bernard Fensterwald III, a private attorney who specializes in the field. "It keeps Americans informed."

There are several exemptions designed to assure that sensitive information doesn't fall into the wrong hands. For example, any record that could compromise national security or cause an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" cannot be released. And documents belonging to the president, vice president, members of Congress, and the courts aren't included in the act, although many of them are routinely released.

But unless a record meets the legal standard to be withheld, "it must be disclosed to the public on request," Fensterwald notes.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, federal agencies may charge filers a reasonable fee for the cost of searching and copying, although in some cases, the service is free. Individuals don't have to disclose why they want records, which can include printed and electronic material, tape recordings, maps, and photographs. Even government workers can use the law to ensure that their agencies are operating ethically.

For instance, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an organization of government workers, frequently asks for records to expose potential wrongdoing and malpractice involving environmental issues.

Just the fact that these groups are using their rights publicly to obtain records can make a big difference. "Filing a request by itself can be enough to stop something that was proceeding because it was not known," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER.

Americans also have protection concerning information being held about them in secret files. Under another law, called the Privacy Act, enacted in 1974, citizens have the right to see records that the federal government has assembled on them and request that these be corrected if there are errors.

And under the U.S. Constitution, American citizens can use their right of free speech to criticize official policy. For example, after obtaining documents about the protection of wetland areas, PEER wrote a "report card" giving the government poor "grades" on this particular issue and made it public by releasing it to the media and posting it on the Internet.

When a group of people from within government speak out about improper or illegal conduct, they are often called "whistleblowers" because they bring such behaviour to the attention of the public.

These whistleblowers have specific rights under U.S. Iaw to be free of reprisals for their actions.

(Extract from a U.S. Dept. of State Publication)

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