With rumors about COVID-19 spreading quickly, we are increasingly turning to public officials for assessments of government action and what additional steps will be taken to keep us safe.
White House officials are now holding near-daily briefings on the crisis after more than 300 days without a press conference. Growing fear within the Commonwealth is forcing Governor Charlie Baker to provide daily face-time through televised announcements and press interviews. Locally, municipalities are sending multiple updates each day listing office closures, essential services availability, and a range of social distancing tips.
Given all this new communication, it may seem we’re learning everything we need to know about government at this critical time. We’re not.
Much of our government is becoming shrouded in secrecy despite how often top officials appear on our screens with updates. Underneath the highest levels of leadership, the Globe recently reported, our government is receding from view, hidden by remote meetings and shuttered offices. Ironically, the reduction of public oversight comes during Sunshine Week, an annual and national celebration of transparency that began on March 15.
None of this bodes well for government’s most important tool in its fight against the coronavirus: public trust.
Timely and accurate information about government is crucial to maintaining trust during a crisis. We can’t trust our public institutions unless we know what they’re doing on our behalf. When authorities provide guidance on how to flatten the curve, for example, we need to know the facts supporting their remarks. When difficult decisions are made about medical care or restricting civil liberties, we need to know how and why these decisions were made. Only through that transparency can we trust that government is responding appropriately.
Unfortunately, we’re starting from an unfavorable position. The Commonwealth lacked transparency well before the first case of the coronavirus. Massachusetts is the only state in the country where the governor’s office, Legislature, and judiciary are exempt, or claim to be exempt, from the state’s public records law. Regulations and bills are frequently proposed to further limit our access to government information. Public officials have been both figuratively and literally working behind closed doors for decades. For many of us, confidence in government had already been waning.
Now unprecedented measures are being taken to divert government attention to the COVID-19 pandemic at the cost of transparency and, I fear, trust.
Some states are now allowing officials to conduct meetings remotely. While this may be a reasonable measure to discourage large gatherings and reduce the spread of the coronavirus, there’s no strict requirement in Massachusetts that these officials allow timely public access. In his March 12 order suspending certain provisions of the state’s Open Meeting Law, Governor Baker allowed municipalities to shut citizens out of remote meetings for “reasons of economic hardship” so long as “best efforts” are made to include them. Transcripts, recordings, or other records of the proceedings are allowed as alternatives “as soon as practicable” — whenever that may be. As Baker noted in the order, low-cost technology is available to allow real-time public access. Its use should be mandated.
Governor Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island this week ordered a similar suspension of her state’s Open Meeting Law. She compounded concerns by also extending public record response deadlines making it more difficult for citizens to get information. This shifting of public resources during a state of emergency can be tolerated only if it is temporary and if officials continue to respond in a timely manner to journalists and citizen watchdogs who depend on those records to inform their communities.
Meanwhile, federal agencies are beginning to use the pandemic as a reason to shut down Freedom of Information Act requests, a development that will place a “significant limit on how Americans can learn about the workings of their government,” according to BuzzFeed News. The office that handles all FOIA requests to the FBI is closed until at least March 30. Citizens must now submit their requests via snail mail rather than using e-mail only adding to the delay.
The concern over public access goes beyond government records and meetings. Two members of Congress tested positive for COVID-19 this week, the first US lawmakers to contract the disease and likely not the last. As testing capacity improves, there will be additional cases, which will lead to more self-quarantine and isolation measures. This will eliminate opportunities for citizens not only to oversee government but also to personally engage with representatives at a time when their concerns are most urgent.
Still, official statements and briefings continue to dominate news cycles, giving the impression that we’re sufficiently connected to government. In reality, the day-to-day process leading up to those high-profile appearances and well-publicized remarks is becoming more and more hidden.
That secrecy will probably lead to bad decisions by governments at every level. But perhaps worse, it could also have us doubting the good ones.
Justin Silverman is executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition.
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