View Point

By Moya Davenport Gray

Saturday, September 14, 1996

Unlocking government
requires rules

THE Honolulu Star-Bulletin's "Locked Out" series on public access to government records (Sept. 2 to 7) raised many important issues for public debate. But to suggest that the Office of Information Practices, which I have headed since May 1995, is leading "Hawaii government's slide toward secrecy" is wrong and demands a response.

In 1988, when the creation of this office was debated, many voices argued that OIP should not become an "information czar" with sole power to decide who should get and who should not get access to public information.The former director took on the challenge of creating the office from scratch and instituted the Records Report System.

The former director and her staff made all decisions about openness in government. Many opinions, carefully written and judicial in nature, were issued. That made the media happy.

But issuing opinions wasn't enough because those opinions, by themselves, didn't create openness in government. Instead this process took the responsibility for openness out of the agencies hands and ultimately created the delays and backlog the media now hail as symptoms of government secrecy.

When faced with this ever-expanding backlog of work, I realized that something had to be done to keep government open. It was clear that agencies had to be educated and told when, where and how to respond to requests for information. But to educate the agencies, OIP had to first adopt rules because in its seven years of existence no rules had been established - OIP was overwhelmed with writing opinions and creating a statewide database for records report.

Nobody wants excessive rules, but we need them to provide guides for acceptable governmental behavior.

Having rules of openness is just as important as issuing opinions. Without rules people cannot require their government to respond in a timely manner. With rules government agencies will be required to respond.

In the last year we have begun this process of empowering people to make government accountable. We have prepared two rules that give people the power to get records in 10 days. If agencies deny access to the records, people can come to OIP for a decision. In short, when there is a dispute about records, OIP should be a court of last resort - not the first resort.

More rules are being written. And OIP is moving forward - not backward. Americans believe in the fundamental importance of openness. We need information to participate in our democracy. The media consider themselves to be the "voice of the people" and fight for their rights as the people's voice. And, in general, I applaud the Star-Bulletin's thoughtful series on government openness.

But we need more than lip service in support of openness. It takes more than a directive to change the culture and mentality of government. The rules are an essential part of that change, and show our commitment to openness.

Not only do we need commitment to the principles of openness, but we must have resources to build openness in government. As information technology has become sophisticated, requests for information have burgeoned. Individuals, organizations and businesses seek more information from government, not only to make government accountable, but to make a profit for themselves. This increase in requests expands the workload of understaffed government agencies and ready access to records is again bottlenecked by sheer numbers of requests.

To improve access to records, government will undoubtedly employ electronic technology - but this will cost money and taxpayers don't want to pay more. Thus, advocates of open government must compete for limited dollars with advocates for the homeless, more prisons, better education.

Despite these hardships, the OIP is committed to open government and is working hard at keeping the doors of government open.

Moya T. Davenport Gray is director of the Office of Information Practices.

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