Transparency Shouldn’t Have “Annoyance” Exceptions

Hawaii Reporter currently has a good summary of the effort to pass a law that would allow the Hawaii Department of Health to ignore requests for the President’s birth certificate.  (As you can imagine, there have been quite a few requests, and the DOH claims that it has become a waste of staff resources.)

Well, cry me a river.

A word of explanation: I once worked in a government FOIA office–for the Army as it so happened.  This was not long after two extremely unpopular Army decisions–the adoption of the Ranger beret for all soldiers and the awarding of the “Army of One” contract.  To say that we were besieged by requests for information about both of these things was an understatement.  Let’s just say that a large section of America was not at all happy about it and made that very clear as they sought more information about the decision process.

And “vexatious” requesters?  Well, I challenge the DOH to beat some of the doozies I encountered.  Processing something so simple and straightforward as a request for information about the microchips implanted by the Army in everyone’s brains was an easy day.

But I do have a point here–it didn’t matter what we in the FOIA office thought about the legitimacy of the requests we got.  We processed them.  Because that is the right thing to do.  Because an open and transparent government needs to treat all requests with respect–not just the ones that don’t annoy us.  And when we had to deal with the same question over and over and over and over again (like the beret), we did the logical thing–we made everything as open and easily available as possible and then streamlined the response process so that it didn’t use up too many of our resources.  (Hint to the DOH–Copy machines.  Use them.)  Did we gripe in the lunch room?  Sure.  But we never would have dreamed that someone would ever try to create a legal exception to the principle of transparency just out of annoyance.

As to why this is all important to the Native Hawaiian project–well, it should be obvious.  This is not a good precedent to set–especially in a state government that has made a lot of promises about sunshine and openness, but hasn’t always followed through.  If the legislature can carve out one exception to transparency policy out of reasons that amount to little more than bureaucratic irritation, then there’s not much to stop them from deciding that there are plenty of other things that they don’t much care to share with the public.

Making transparency a pick-and-choose option in the hands of bureaucrats violates the principle of open government and sets us on a slippery slope.

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