Posts Tagged ‘transparency’


Science Writers Survey Looks At Reporter-PIO Dealings

Science writers have a hard time getting candid information from government scientists. While the public information office sometimes helps connect the two, the PIO also can interfere with the reporting process to the point of keeping the public from getting all the information it needs. These are some of the findings of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee’s latest survey of reporters about their relationship with government public information offices. The survey of science writers was released April 9 at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The survey was cosponsored by the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

 
Among other things, the science writers survey found that:
• Almost three quarters (74.2%) of respondents said that PIOs require reporters to get their approval before interviewing employees at least some of the time.
• More than half (52.2%) said that when they ask to interview a specific subject matter expert, their request for an interview is routed to a different agency employee by the PIO at least some of the time.
• 67.5% said they have to make multiple requests for information and interviews when they go through the public information office to get access to a subject matter expert at least some of the time.
• Reporters who got an interview often found the PIO sitting in on the interview either on the telephone or in person (31.8% some of the time, 19.5% most of the time, 6.5% all of the time).
• However, many science writers have figured out ways to interview subject matter experts without involving the public information office (34.2% some of the time, 21.9% most of the time, 10.3% all of the time). Often, these are people they cornered at a conference or meeting, or had a long-term relationship with.

 

Kathryn Foxhall, an SPJ FOI Committee member who has made a study of the PIO issue, said at Thursday’s conference that the problem of reporters being required to go through the PIO to talk to government employees is becoming widespread in recent years.
“Most basically, when reporters are required to go through PIOs to talk to anyone, the source people know they are under surveillance by the official structure and that changes everything. Likely enough, there is someone in the agency who could blow the whole story out of the water if the PIOs weren’t tracking who is talking to which reporter,” she said.
“Maybe the most frequent problem is not about hiding malfeasance. It may be the constant blockage of pieces of our education, so the whole understanding is weak,” she said. “However, often enough there is also just stone-cold manipulation of the message according to insiders’ ideas and desires, including political purposes.”

The report released April 9, which included survey results from science writers, was the fourth in a series of reports from the FOI committee since 2012. The first surveyed Washington¬‐area reporters who covered federal agencies. The second surveyed members of the Education Writers Association and the third was a national survey of state and local political reporters. FOI Committee member Carolyn Carlson led the research for these surveys.

Must read FOI stories – 7/25/14

Every week I do a roundup of the freedom of information stories around the Web. If you have an FOI story you want to share, send me an email or tweet me.

  • The Electronic Privacy Information Center has sued the United States Customs and Border Protection to compel the agency to produce documents relating to a relatively new comprehensive intelligence database of people and cargo crossing the U.S. border.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

FOI Daily Dose: Attorney sues Carolinas HealthCare System for withholding confidential settlement

A Charlotte attorney is suing Carolinas HealthCare System for allegedly violating the state’s “sometimes-ambiguous” public records law by keeping a settlement confidential, according to The Charlotte Observer.

Attorney Gary Jackson is arguing that Carolinas HealthCare has no legal right to keep its settlement confidential, and he’s asking for a court order to force disclosure of the document so he can see if it’s fair.

Carolinas HealthCare won the confidential settlement in a court complaint in 2008 against the former Wachovia Bank. The hospital system said the bank broke its promise to put the hospital’s money in low-risk investments. One of their investments fell from about $15 million to $1.8 million, according to The Observer.

The hospital system’s board of directors in 2011 went into a closed session to approve the settlement, but they kept it confidential and refused to provide copies of the agreement.

Jackson and Carolinas HealthCare representatives came before a Superior Court Judge this week in a hearing to present their case.

The hospital is motioning to dismiss Jackson’s suit because the public records law does not explicitly say suits filed by a government agency are public records.

Mark Merritt, a lawyer representing the hospital system, said public disclosure could cost public bodies more money. He argued that the settlement falls through one of the public records act’s many loopholes because the law only requires public release of “any suit, administrative proceeding or arbitration instituted against any agency of North Carolina government.”

“I describe (the public records act) as a Swiss cheese,” Merritt said at the hearing. “It’s got a lot of holes in it.”

Jackson agreed the law does have holes, but said he doesn’t believe confidential settlements in lawsuits filed by public agencies should be allowed to slip through and evade the public eye.

“It’s a public body and there needs to be that transparency,” he said.

Jackson said even though Carolinas Healthcare is the largest employer in Mecklenburg County, it is “not known for transparency.”

Carolinas HealthCare system is a public, tax-exempt hospital, but Mecklenburg County officials have criticized it for acting more like a private organization than a public one, The Observer reported.

The Observer lists a series of speculative open records and open meetings violations committed by the hospital, including failing to share data about a county-owned psychiatric hospital, not inviting the public to quarterly board meetings and not providing The Observer with its administrative expenses.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

From Wall Street to microfinance: How corruption is seeping into the financial sector

Microfinance expert blows whistle on corruption

One whistleblower’s extensive knowledge of microfinance has effectively protected him against potential retaliation —  even after publication of his book exposing scandals in the industry.

Hugh Sinclair’s book “Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic” discusses the corruption evident in the microfinance industry. Although praised by many from U2 singer Bono to Hillary Clinton, Sinclair’s research reveals the industry’s  exorbitant interest rates and harsh collection tactics, Huffington Post reports.  Money initially intended to go toward a business will go instead toward providing basic life necessities or paying off other loans. Loans from these microfinance institutions (MFIs) come with a hefty burden, sometimes charging interest rates of 100 percent or higher.  Microfinance can be beneficial, but only if the lenders are more transparent and have accountability, Sinclair told Bloomberg Businessweek. Sinclair still works with honest microfinance agencies, but has published his findings in an attempt to shed light on those whose practices do not measure up to expectations.

“His goal is not to destroy the microfinance industry but to hold it accountable,” Huffington Post reports.

Although many whistleblowers experience retaliation in some form, Sinclair is effectively safeguarded from such because of his expertise in the field.

Some Wall Street folks admit they would cheat

Wall Street seems to be making a case for its need for increased oversight and transparency.  Roughly a quarter of Wall Street executives surveyed said they saw bending or breaking laws as necessary to get ahead professionally. Five hundred Wall Street executives in the U.S. and U.K. responded to survey questions regarding observations and intentions of engaging in corrupt practices.  Labaton Sucharow, a law firm focused on corporate responsibility and whistleblower protection, conducted the survey. Read more here.

Whitney is the summer Pulliam/Killgore intern with SPJ. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University after studying journalism. Connect with her via email –  wevans@hq.spj.org –  or on twitter – @whitevs7

*Know something about Freedom of Information that you think we should cover in a blog post? We want to hear from you! Send information to wevans@HQ.SPJ.org. It may be featured in a future post.

 

Changing the story behind freedom of information through peer pressure

In an article on changing corporate culture, strategic adviser Peter Bregman suggests the power of peer pressure to affect far-reaching change within the culture of a business .  Bregman cites a study by Leann Lipps Birch that showed children’s preferences for foods they disliked increased when they saw their peers eating the same foods.  Using this as a launching pad, he suggests the best way to change the culture of a company is to do positive, story-worthy things, or showcase those who are making positive efforts, and change the stories being told. Once people hear positive stories about their agency, they are more likely to follow suit.

We live by stories. We tell them, repeat them, listen to them carefully, and act in accordance with them. – Peter Bregman

What does this have to do with freedom of information? A look through stories in recent media shows that some public bodies and government officials are still less than excited to cooperate with the public’s demand for greater transparency and access to information. For example,  the House Committee for Government Oversight and Reform recently to investigated questionable Department of Labor policies that would affect media outlets. Additionally, committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) questioned Attorney General Eric Holder regarding the  ‘Fast and Furious’ operation.  These show public bodies need to shift from secrecy to transparency, ideally sparking a change among requesters — from suspicion to cautious trust.

However, there are still those who work to further government transparency, effectively changing the nature of the stories being told. For instance:

  • Maurice Frankel, a freedom of information expert in the United Kingdom, is using the power of peer pressure to force change in his corner of the world. In a recent article, he offered The Netherlands’ punitive measures as an example of what can be done in instances of  freedom of information violations. Adding insult to injury, FOI violators may be subject to fines of 30 euros daily for late responses to FOI requests, to be paid directly to the requester. Fines can reach a maximum of 1260 euros. Frankel adds that The Netherlands FOI laws are currently under review, so the efficacy of these punitive measures may soon be known.
  • Rosemary Agnew, Scotland’s  Information Commissioner,  is looking for ways to inexpensively train public bodies. Agnew is trying to help public bodies  respond correctly to requests when they’re first made, effectively freeing up resources in the process.  Agnew has experience with responding to freedom of information requests. She found training to be expensive, and is working to find ways to make training more affordable and accessible to all employees in the public sector.

Whitney is the summer Pulliam/Killgore intern with SPJ. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University after studying journalism. Connect with her via email –  wevans@hq.spj.org –  or on twitter – @whitevs7

*Know something about Freedom of Information that you think we should cover in a blog post? We want to hear from you! Send information to wevans@HQ.SPJ.org. It may be featured in a future post.

 

 

Transparency Triumph of the Week: Open Government Partnership making first forays into open government promotion

The Open Government Partnership Forum last week marked a step forward in its goal of encouraging transparency and accountability efforts among governments around the world.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the OGP as a support network for leaders and citizens committed to improving transparency in countries worldwide, according to an article from the Brookings Institution.

The program’s emphasis on multilateral cooperation is key, as it will take efforts from all levels of power and influence to achieve its goal.

Civil society organizations were mentioned during the forum as important factors in encouraging open government.

The OGP has a tough road ahead – promoting transparency on a global scale is a tall order to fill. But starting a discussion on these issues is an important first step, and the forum last week succeeded in that respect.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

 

FOI DAILY DOSE: Fla. records requests get cheaper, push for transparent redistricting in Ohio

Good news: Florida records to cost a little less

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is making it a little cheaper to access public records, easing the costs his open records policy originally required.

The state won’t charge people for public records work that takes less than 30 minutes to complete, according to a post by the Orlando Sentinel’s Central Florida Political Pulse blog. It also won’t charge requesters for the first 30-minute period of work that follows if the search takes longer than the initial half-hour time span.

The hourly rate that requesters will be charged for the time personnel spend on their request will also be changed. The rate was previously based on the salary of the specific person handling the records request, but people will now be charged $19.43 – an administrative assistant’s hourly rate.

Ohioans call for transparent redistricting process

Ohio residents gathered at the statehouse Wednesday to promote the need for transparency in the state’s congressional redistricting process.

People advocated in the first of five planned legislative hearings for representatives to improve the transparency of redistricting by disclosing proposed maps for public feedback prior to voting and to encourage public input in the process.

State lawmakers have until December 7 to approve a new map of the redrawn congressional districts, according to an Associated Press article.

The Ohio Campaign for Accountable Redistricting is running an online political contest where state residents can create maps that can then be voted upon by various users.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

 

FOI DAILY DOSE: Army whistleblower hits gov with FOIA lawsuit, Rumsfeld releases new docs revealing secrecy views

Whistleblower sues for info on Army investigation

Army Lt. Col. Michael Holmes, who opposed what he felt were illegal actions while serving in Afghanistan, has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit with fellow solider Laural Levine to gain the release of an Army investigation’s results.

The investigation was launched in response to a Rolling Stone article that detailed how Holmes had spoken out against an Army general’s alleged orders for information operations specialists to employ “psychological operations” on congressional representatives visiting Afghanistan.

These operations are generally used on insurgents, according to the Project on Government Oversight.

Holmes enlisted the help of a military lawyer to ensure that the activities he was to take part in were modified because he felt they would otherwise have been illegal for him to perform.

He and Levine worked closely together in Afghanistan and felt they were later subjected to an Army investigation in retaliation.

For more details on Holmes’ story, check out the Rolling Stone article.

Rumsfeld releases 2005 memos revealing his rhetoric on secrecy

In a November 2005 memorandum then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the system of government secrecy was, quite frankly, a failure.

He wrote that the government was unable to keep a secret and that policies should reflect that fact.

Another Rumsfeld memo from August 2005 raised the idea of reducing the amount of information that is classified – a goal that is being evaluated by the Obama-ordered Fundamental Classification Guidance Review.

While these memos don’t appear to have had any major effect on policy, they do raise interesting points about government secrecy. The documents were posted on Rumsfeld’s website on July 12 with more than 500 other memos that had been previously undisclosed.

For commentary on the memos and their implications, read this Secrecy News blog post.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

 

FOI DAILY DOSE: N.J. phone records made more public, Kundra unveiled .gov task force, ACLU asked to return classified doc

N.J. court requires public officials to reveal cell phone call locations

Location, location, location.

That can’t stay secret when it comes to cell phone records, according to a New Jersey court ruling.

Public officials using taxpayer-funded cell phones must disclose the destination of the calls they make because such information is helpful to the public interest, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The court case, Livecchia v. Borough of Mount Arlington, arose after after the borough redacted the locations of calls made by public officials when it filled resident Gayle Ann Livecchia’s records request.

Livecchia and other citizens can use the phone call locations, which must now be disclosed, to find out whether government employees are improperly using their work cells.

Federal task force to evaluate gov websites

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra revealed the names of 17 people who will comprise a .gov task force that will slim down government websites and evaluate potential policy adjustments for running such Web properties in the future.

Those appointed include IT professionals from various federal offices, according to a Government Tech blog post.

This task force complements President Obama’s “Campaign to Cut Waste,” which aims to cut unnecessary expenditures.

This includes paring down the 2,000-plus federal URLs in use.

Here’s a list of 1,759 top Web domains for the executive branch, as well as a Q&A page on the project that includes a list of all task force members.

Gov demands ACLU return classified doc

The federal government wants a judge to order the American Civil Liberties Union to return a classified document that was released to the organization detailing how employees decide which Afghanistan detainees are Enduring Security Threats.

The ACLU must respond to the government’s court filings by July 29, according to the Washington Post’s Checkpoint Washington blog.

The ACLU wants to post the document, which it says was improperly classified, to its website.

The Pentagon gave the organization the document, along with several others, in compliance with a court order requiring their release. The ACLU notified the government about the Afghanistan detainee document on May 25.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

 

FOI Fail of the Week: Pentagon works to extend information safeguards, not rein them in

Although President Obama issued an executive order in November 2010 calling for agencies to narrow their use of labels like “Controlled Unclassified Information” and “for official use only,” the Defense Department is trying to impose even more restrictions.

The Pentagon proposed a rule in June that would permit new safeguard requirements for designations such as “Sensitive But Unclassified” that protect unclassified information from disclosure, according to Secrecy News.

The rule also requires protection of any unclassified information that hasn’t been specifically authorized for public disclosure.

This action, if implemented, would permit the further use of safeguarding labels. As a result, much unclassified information would continue to be kept from the public despite the Obama administration’s stated goal of putting more data into citizens’ hands.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

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