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Sunshine Week 2011: Catching Up With OGIS

Last week – March 14-18 – was Sunshine Week. Did you feel the glow? This annual initiative, which coincides with national FOI Day and James Madison’s birthday (March 16), is designed to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of information and open government.

James Madison

James Madison

Why is Sunshine Week celebrated on Madison’s birthday? Besides being instrumental in the ratification of the Constitution and the fourth President of the United States, Madison is generally regarded as the grandfather of open government. Madison wrote, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Sunshine Week is a fun and busy time for OGIS. Besides allowing us to attend (and more times than not, participate in) once-a-year events devoted to open government, it also gives us a chance to catch up with some of the leading minds working on these issues today. Here’s a recap of where we went and what we observed during Sunshine Week 2011:

Monday, March 14

Freedom of Information Day Celebration at American University Washington College of Law

The Washington College of Law’s Collaboration on Government Secrecy kicked off Sunshine Week 2011 with its fourth annual Freedom of Information Day Celebration. This day-long event included panels on FOIA privacy issues, a legislative outlook, a discussion of FOIA in the trenches and more. OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet provided the lunchtime keynote address.

Much of Monday’s discussion focused on the practical realities of the vision laid out in President Obama’s and Attorney General Holder’s 2009 memoranda on government openness and FOIA. Though many of the speakers were encouraged by what they see as abundant signs of change throughout the Federal FOIA landscape, all agreed that more improvements are needed.

Also on Monday, the Department of Justice unveiled FOIA.gov and showcased several agency efforts at improving FOIA. NASA touted social media as a tool to help alleviate the need for some FOIA requests, while the FBI announced that it is weeks away from posting a vault of documents online. Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli and FOIA officials from four Federal agencies spoke at the event, attended by FOIA professionals from across the government and commemorating the second anniversary of Attorney General Holder’s FOIA guidelines.

Tuesday, March 15

Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing “The Freedom of Information Act: Ensuring Transparency and Accountability in the Digital Age”

Sunshine Week provides an opportunity for Congress to learn more about agencies’ open government efforts by holding hearings. Director Nisbet testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on OGIS’s activities and findings from its first 18 months. A webcast of the hearing is available online.

Wednesday, March 16 (Madison’s birthday!)

National FOI Day Conference hosted by the First Amendment Center

OGIS staff attended this not-to-be-missed event at the Newseum, now in its 13th year. In addition to a daylong program of panels and speakers examining the current state of FOI, the American Library Association presented its annual James Madison Award to an individual or group who has exemplified the public’s right to know. We were thrilled that Openthegovernment.org’s Patrice McDermott, received the 2011 James Madison Award in acknowledgement of her years of tireless work on government information and openness. Congratulations, Patrice!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Hearing “The Freedom Of Information Act: Crowd-Sourcing Government Oversight”

The Committee heard from a wide range of FOIA requesters and open government advocates. OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet also testified, providing OGIS’s unique viewpoint on the FOIA landscape and the challenges that requesters and agencies face. A webcast of the hearing is available online.

Friday, March 18

The Road Forward on Open Government, sponsored by Openthegovernment.org

This Sunshine Week wrap-up event, sponsored by Openthegovernment.org and hosted by the Center for American Progress, organized two panels to discuss key open government issues. Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero, included in the first panel, provided his perspective on the Administration’s open government efforts. A webcast of the event is available online.

Did you attend any Sunshine Week events this year? We’d love to hear your thoughts and impressions in the comments!