Commentary: People, government of Virginia need to work together

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Last Thursday I spent my morning with a group of government employees -- 60 of them from all over Virginia, in both local and state government -- whose job it is to manage their agency’s records, to respond to requests under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, or both.

They were there to learn tips, techniques and strategies for better records management. The theory is that the better shape your records are in, the easier it will be to manage FOIA requests. A records analyst from the Library of Virginia helped them understand retention, archiving and proper destruction of public records. A city’s deputy communication director talked about how an agency can implement a citizen-centric FOIA-response policy. The director of the state agency tasked with informally mediating FOIA disputes talked about how even email on private computers is subject to FOIA if it has to do with the public’s business.

They were all there because of me. I’m not in government. Never have been.

What’s this, though? Government and access advocates mingling freely?

You bet.

If the public’s right to know is to be championed, those on both sides of the counter must understand their rights and responsibilities. Good government, transparent government is a work in progress, one that only works well when people work together. When people understand the law. And, most importantly, when people view public information requests and records management through a cultural prism of openness.

Virginia caught a lot of flack recently when the State Integrity Investigation gave the Old Dominion a failing grade of F for susceptibility to corruption. Many in Virginia government quickly dismissed the results because there was no way in their mind that Virginia could receive a failing grade while states with well-known cases of massive corruption -- New Jersey, Illinois, Rhode Island, Louisiana -- ranked ahead of them (New Jersey first!).

Of course, they were ignoring the ranking’s stated purpose that it was to measure susceptibility to corruption, not actual corruption. And the study measured that susceptibility by the existence (or not) of certain laws and practices. There was no one thing, or no one missing element that would doom a state, but a mixture of several elements, from ethics enforcement agencies and lobbying disclosures (Virginia received an F for both) to internal auditing and procurement (Virginia received an A for both).

The exercise was important for the way in which it illustrated the interrelatedness of laws and procedures that together make for a good and clear government.

But, as illustrated by my morning panel, the existence of laws and/or the exact wording of the law doesn’t matter much if the laws are not understood, interpreted or implemented properly. Without a culture of openness in any given local or state agency, the best written law in the world doesn’t matter.

It’s a sad fact borne out in the headlines every day that laws criminalizing assault or embezzlement haven’t stopped either from occurring. Marriage vows and fault divorces haven’t stopped adulterous spouses. People intent on acting badly, those whose moral compass has lost True North, will behave badly regardless of what the law or the social norms say. The same is true with government officials. They will act crooked if they’re bent on acting crooked, whether there’s an ethics panel or not, whether there are good procurement laws or not.

I don’t mean to say that we should just chuck criminal laws, ethics laws or the Ten Commandments. What I mean is that the allure of these behaviors we do proscribe will be lessened only when people have the necessary tools to confront the temptation.

In the access to government information category (for which Virginia also received an F), that means that the people who use access laws need to understand them. They need training. They need context. They need informational resources.

It also means that they need to be encouraged to embrace openness as an everyday part of the job. That culture comes from agency heads, local officials and state government lawmakers. When those in positions of authority stress principles of openness or principles of ethical behavior, those in lower levels will, too.

There are also several factors to consider when ranking Virginia’s level of openness:

  • In 2000, Virginia joined only a handful of states that had a FOIA ombudsman’s office. Now, an ombudsman has become standard when any other state overhauls its public records act.
  • The FOIA Council has issued thousands of formal and informal opinions to citizens, press and media. They conduct training sessions and host work groups to hammer out revisions to the Act.
  • The Virginia Coalition for Open Government has been lobbying on behalf of open government for the 15 years of our existence, as does the Virginia Press Association and the Virginia Association of Broadcasters. We’ve been able to beat back most of the really bad ideas and contribute to the passage of good ones.
  • Virginia’s unique independent city/county structure means that jurisdictions who share services also serve as a check on one another.
  • Virginia’s unique one-and-done gubernatorial term means the state’s top executive is not beholden to monied interests for reelection.
  • Though it would be better if the state proactively tracked campaign and lobbying donations on its own, there is a nonprofit organization -- the Virginia Public Access Project -- that does this in an innovative and engaging way. The organization is supported by donations from the public, press, lobbyists and politicians.

At the risk of sounding like a pollyanna, I think Virginia has a pretty good culture of openness and a decent overall culture of clean government (they like to call it The Virginia Way). Sure, there are portions of Virginia’s FOIA that I think could be better or stronger (and judges who could do a better job of interpreting the existing law). And at VCOG, we will continue to monitor bad open government policy, lobby against bad bills and publicly condemn questionable FOIA practices.

But I also see real attempts at all level of government to get it right. And by working together to ensure that everyone is equipped with the tools and knowledge they need, access to public information in Virginia will not fail.

To learn more about transparency and open government in Virginia, visit the Virginia Coalition for Open Government website.

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