Talking to an American Society of Newspaper Editors Convention last month, US President George W Bush said the public should know as much as possible about government decision making, but that national security and personal privacy - including his - must be protected.
"I believe in open government," Bush said. "I've always believed in open government. I don't e-mail, however. And there's a reason: I don't want you reading my personal stuff."
Bush, once a prolific e-mailer, closed all e-mail accounts just before taking office in 2001 after lawyers advised his presidential e-mail com-munications would be subject to legal and archival requirements. "There's got to be a certain sense of privacy," Bush said. "You're entitled to how I make decisions and you're entitled to ask questions, which I answer. I don't think you're entitled to read my mail between my daughters and me."
Unfortunately his words might be taken as a joke by many who charge the Bush Administration with being one of the most secretive in history. Representative Henry A Waxman is one who has comprehensively probed secrecy in the Bush Administration and found a consistent pattern of efforts designed to keep administrative activities secret. As a matter of routine, it seems, laws meant to promote public access to information are subverted, while laws that authorize the government to withhold information or to operate in secret have repeatedly been expanded. Waxman says the cumulative result is an unprecedented assault on the principle of open government. Furthermore, by all accounts Bush rarely holds press conferences, and scandals continue to swirl around the Administration's reliance on cash for comment and sympathetic reporters to massage its message.
And the Bush Administration is far from alone: as governments around the world increasingly seem to blur the lines between the national interest and their own political interests, open government has taken hit after hit. Twenty three years after the enactment in this country of the Freedom of Information Act in the name of eliminating unnecessary government secrecy, journalists, activists and other interested parties often struggle to find out what our paid representatives are up to.
The ACT government is amongst the latest to get on board, last month demanding more than $3000 in processing fees to provide documents on the revegetation of the Cotter River catchment requested by The Canberra Times under the Freedom of Information Act. Legal experts charged that the fees were intended to "frustrate and intimidate" and that the government had turned the process into an information management game. There's no doubt high fees run counter to the FoI basic principles of public accountability and transparency.
Once upon a time Australians weren't allowed to know the price of wheat sold to China, or even the details of the contracts for hiring pot plants in Parliament House. FoI legislation was designed to counter that. But while FoI legislation supports the rhetoric of open government, many journalists and community advocates remain disappointed and angry at the difficulty they meet gaining government documents and information on government processes.
Opposition leader Kim Beazley, addressing the National Press Club a few days before President Bush's speech, promised a Labor government would be different, telling journalists he would introduce "a better FoI Act, a better Act on controlling how governments use advertising".
If only political parties in Opposition didn't have such a track record of seeing matters entirely different once they take over the government benches, we might even believe him.
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