Public Access to Environmental Information: Government and Grassroots Actions

Coming into the home stretch now and it’s getting harder and harder to get to the sessions and to make any meaningful sense of them. Perhaps I should reserve my postings until I have a chance to recover, but then I’d probably never get to them. Best to get to them when they are fresh.

This session started off with Linda Fennell, DC Environmental Justice Organizer, Sierra Club. Her presentation consisted of 3 case studies of the ways in which her organization has used government information to fight for environmental justice within communities. She noted that 60% of low-income people and people of color live in polluted areas. She said that technology has really helped these communities to exercise their FOIA rights, but still noted the ongoing problems of the digital divide and a general problem with access due to a lack of neighborhood libraries and cyber cafes, and the location of central government records. Moreover, she noted that one real challenge was the lack of knowledge of how to access information. Many people simply don’t know that certain information even exists, let alone where to go to access it.

Next up was Sean Moulton, OMB Watch, Director of Federal Information Policy. Generally, he noted that government loves to have and create information, but they hate pubic access to information. The government has a natural tendency toward secrecy. Why is this? Because increased public access to information = increased accountability, criticism, pressure, questions, and participation. Meanwhile, government secrecy = time, flexibility, and control (controlling the spin, controlling people’s actions and reactions).

He discussed FOIA as a passive, slow, legalistic, adversarial, and government-focused system. Moulton advocates for a Right-to-Know system which is proactive, faster, co-operative, user-friendly, and user-focused; government should be pushing the info out, we shouldn’t be having to pull it out. He also descibed current government information policy as follows:

• They disclose positive information, but are not so willing to disclose negative news

• They are more likely to disclose information after pressure – laws, court cases, congressional inquiries, public outcry. For example, Hurricane Katrina emphasized many problems in the information infrastructure and now people are demanding action in their right to know.

• The disclosure is limited, often influenced by corporate lobbying to disclose less

• They rollback information disclosure when the pressure and attention passes

Corporations like secrecy as much as government does, more probably. Less government info = less corporate info and less accountability.

Moulton emphasized the need for more public participation in the information policy process and that it must be user-focused. And in a statement that was very reminiscent of Susanne Barker’s worst case scenario planning, one of his strategies for improving public access is to be prepared to leap forward when a crisis arises that highlights the information crisis and the need for access, to have a solution ready waiting for the problem.

The final speaker was Tom Moritz, Associate Director / Chief Knowledge Management, Getty Research Institute. Moritz’s topic was An Introduction to Conservation Commons. In all honesty, leaving the session I still had no idea what the Conservation Commons was. I don’t know if he was more used to a different crowd or had simply over-prepared, but most of Moritz’s slides were lengthy quotes and charts and bar graphs about the scientific process that he just glossed over in the interest of time. It was one of those “And this slide shows this graph, and this slide has this quote by so-and-so” kinds of presentations in which there was little if any explanation about why those items were included. It would have been much more interesting to actually hear about the Conservation Commons and how it is being used than to see slide after slide of numbers detailing Olde Timey computer specs and technological saturation levels.