‘Sunshine Week’ Poll: Majority Say Washington is ‘Secretive’

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By: E&P Staff

A majority of Americans now consider the federal government at least “somewhat secretive” — with more than one in five saying it is “very secretive,” according to a poll released with the kickoff of Sunshine Week on Sunday.

The poll by the Scripps Survey Research Center was one of two national polls released Sunday that found widespread support among Americans for open government.

In the Scripps poll, which was requested by Sunshine Week organizer the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), 62% of respondents said “public access to government records is critical to the functioning of good government.”

By that standard, the federal government is failing, Americans told the pollsters. Just one third of respondents said they consider the federal government “very open.”

In the second survey, fully 81% of respondents agreed that democracy requires government to operate more openly. Nearly seven in 10 (69%) said open meetings and public records keep government honest.

But this poll — conducted by the AccessNorthwest research and outreach project at the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication at Washington State University in Pullman — also found that 63% found it acceptable that government officials keep records secret “if they deem it necessary,” and nearly three-quarters (73%) believe the president should “make some public records secret if it might help with the war on terrorism.”

“These surveys confirm the country’s growing concern about excessive secrecy,” said Andy Alexander, chairman of ASNE’s Freedom of Information Committee and the Washington Bureau Chief for Cox Newspapers. “They also show that citizens overwhelmingly believe that open government is good government. The public understands that openness — to the greatest degree possible — will produce government that is more efficient, more honest and more responsive to the citizens it serves.”

The Washington State poll was funded with a grant from the Knight Foundation, which is funding Sunshine Week, as well as the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

In general, both polls show increasing public concern about government secrecy in Washington.

There appears to be less concern about secrecy on the state and local level. Just 10% of respondents said their town councils or state legislatures were “very secret,” with another 30% considering them “somewhat secret.” A solid majority, 55%, believe their state and local governments are open to public review.

The Scripps poll, conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University with a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation, surveyed 1,007 adults by telephone from Feb. 19 to March 3. There is a margin of error of plus/minus 4 percentage points.

The complete Scripps poll is available online here.

The Washington State poll surveyed 403 adults nationwide, and has an error margin of plus/minus 5 percent. This poll also quizzed respondents about access to specific records, such as police reports, salaries of public employees, and property tax records.

Survey results for that poll are online here .

Hodding Carter, the former newspaper and network journalist who is Sunshine Week’s honorary chairman, said the polls show Americans “don’t like being cut from the facts about their government deeds,” and believe strongly that in a democracy information is power.

“Polls are people,” he said in a statement, “and once more the people have demonstrated that Lincoln was right: You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool most of them for very long.”

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