Nestled firmly between St. Patrick’s Day and the spring equinox, another celebration is quietly gaining recognition. March 15-21 is Sunshine Week, a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. According to the website, Sunshine Week "is about the public's right to know what its government is doing, and why." Many government agencies, large and small, are jumping on the transparency bandwagon by setting up digitized databases of government files for public viewing.
Sunshine Week began in Florida in 2002, explains coordinator Debra Gersh Hernandez. She says, "Sunshine Week started as Sunshine Sunday in Florida back in 2002." Members of the press started seeing a lot of information that had previously been available as a matter of public record,being closed down. At the time, Florida legislators were attempting to create new exemptions to the state's public records law, so the Society of Florida Newspaper Editors launched Sunshine Sunday, a series of columns and editorials commenting on the new initiatives to censor public records. Seven years later, Sunshine Week hopes to further ignite a conversation around information censorship by inviting anyone, from journalists to students, teachers, private citizens, librarians, civic leaders, public officials, bloggers, and non-profit groups to get involved anyway they please.
Though the idea of information transparency isn’t a new one, Sunshine Week has seen an increase in public awareness, especially since the Obama administration seems to be pushing the issue to the forefront. In a memorandum for the heads of executive departments and agencies regarding the Freedom of Information Act, President Obama said, "Agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely."
Not everyone seems to have gotten the message. Some government agencies are still lacking in results. In a study developed by Sunshine Week, the American Society of Newspaper Editors' Freedom of Information Committee, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, and the Society of Professional Journalists' FOI Committee, teams of surveyors scanned government websites in every U.S. state to look for 20 different kinds of public records. Many agencies are still having a hard time getting important information to the people. The state with the least amount of information online was Mississippi, which only posted DOT contracts and projects, fictitious business name registrations, statewide school test scores, and political campaign contributions and expenses. Texas was the only state that posted information on all 20 categories surveyed.
As the demand for information grows some government agencies--depending on state laws--are taking the digital approach. Many of the states are relying on companies like Laserfiche to facilitate this movement. Since 1987, the company has offered a suite of document management products that provide scanning, indexing, information sharing, business process management, integration, and tracking and auditing tools. Kimberly Samuelson, director of government marketing for Laserfiche, says that it helps governments and municipalities deliver services to the public by supplying simple solutions that address complex data problems. With 480 counties and 1,700 cities across the United States and Canada using its solutions, Laserfiche is no stranger to the municipal government market.
Taking a cue from what these municipalities need is key to the success of a company like Laserfiche. Each agency requires a plan customized to their current data situation. According to Samuelson, government agencies are "saying either we need to digitize because we have nothing digitized; we need to organize better; or maybe we want to integrate with other systems. Municipalities can be in different stages." With each stage comes a need for different features and approaches.
With companies like Laserfiche facilitating the move toward accomplishing the goals Sunshine Week sets forth, a more transparent government is in the works. Samuelson explains, "It is all about public record requests and making government transparency available to citizens. …We are moving into automation. Not only is it about finding and filing things, it’s about automating things that already exist."
With government agencies and document management companies on the same page, Sunshine Week is accomplishing its goal of bringing government information to the public’s attention. "Really this is a government for the people, by the people. People have the right to know how their money is being spent and how officials are behaving," says Hernandez. This sentiment is certainly echoed by Laserfiche. Says Samuelson, "Service delivery is a primary function of government. Information is power."