What We Heard and Learned during Sunshine Week

The members and staff of the Public Interest Declassification Board attended and participated in many events last week to commemorate Sunshine Week.  We would like to thank the representatives from agencies, civil society and open government advocacy groups, the Congress, the public and all the attendees who participated in these panels and events.  The Board wishes to thank Elizabeth Goitein and the Brennan Center for Justice for hosting a forum at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace titled, Secrecy & Security: The Future of Classification Reform.  I enjoyed participating in this lively discussion.  In case you missed it, you can view the forum here.  The discussions and comments from these events highlight the importance of an open and transparent government.  They reinforced our belief that citizens are interested in engaging with Government and they value the importance of democratic discourse.  We heard repeatedly of a deep desire for citizens to participate actively in policy deliberation to be able to hold Government accountable for policy decisions.  The ideals espoused by James Madison are very much present.

We heard about the need to reform the secrecy system:  too much information is needlessly classified and classified information remains inaccessible for too long.  We heard that the classification system is too old, too complicated and is not suited for the post-Cold War information age. We heard that the era of “Big Data” threatens to overwhelm the system and that the current declassification processes will not work in an age of petabytes of information creation.

The panelists’ comments underscored the challenges of the cultural perspectives ingrained in system users and reinforced the Board’s view that only leadership from the White House will drive real reform.  This is precisely why the Board’s first recommendation in our report calls for establishing a Steering Committee accountable to the President to energize and direct agencies to work together to reform the classification system.

The Secrecy & Security forum sparked a serious conversation about the limits of secrecy and offered perspectives on how to transform the security classification system to one that meets the demands of all users in the digital age.  As part of my remarks, I emphasized the need for the President to establish a Steering Committee.  It is essential that membership includes officials with expertise in technology, records and information management, and officials who can drive reform and change existing policies.  Cultural bias in favor of secrecy is perhaps the largest impediment to true reform across Government, a sentiment echoed by fellow panelists and attendees at events throughout the week.  Only through strong leadership will attitudes and opinions about secrecy and openness change.

At the conclusion of Sunshine Week, we reaffirm our commitment to an Open Government.  We invite you to continue the discussion about open government and freedom of information by commenting on our recommendations on our blog.


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