Sunshine laws are state-sponsored and federally sponsored regulations that govern public disclosures of information concerning the activities of government departments and agencies in the United States. Sunshine laws outline the mandatory procedures that regulatory bodies must adopt to enhance public accessibility to documented records for all meetings and information about general proceedings and decision-making processes. The laws are meant to ensure that government agencies sanction the attendance of public representatives and the media organizations in all meetings so that the information of the proceedings of the meetings can be channeled to the public in an efficient and timely manner. As such, sunshine laws emphasize transparency and accountability in different functions of government departments and agencies.
CONSQUENCES OF WATERGATE
The first sunshine laws were enacted by the state of Utah in 1898, followed closely by sunshine laws enacted in Florida in 1905, with all the other states in the United States gradually adopting sunshine laws in the 1960s and 1970s. This trend culminated in the passing of the Government in the Sunshine Act by the Congress in 1976, an act that followed revelations about the Watergate scandal and other incidences of misappropriation of public resources. The increased recognition, enactments, and reviews of sunshine laws by states was influenced by increased public concern over decision-making and management processes in government and state agencies.
Sunshine laws differ from state to state, and different states frequently amend their sunshine laws to suit state specific regulatory requirements. Therefore, there exist variations in the way in which the virtues of public information access are implemented by different government agencies and different state governments in the United States. Variations are particularly imminent in state definitions of public institutions that are subjected to the provisions of open meetings and penalties for non-compliance to the provisions.
By subjecting management processes of governmental institutions to public scrutiny, sunshine laws lend credibility to institutional management processes and enhance openness in governance by virtue of diffusing information and delegating authority to different levels of society. Michael McLendon and James Hearn point out that the application of sunshine laws in regulatory bodies in the United States facilitates the achievement of targeted operational objectives such as financial health, fiscal stability, management honesty, consultative decision-making, and efficiency in management of state institutions.
PROBLEMS WITH SUNSHINE LAWS
However, there are deep concerns about some drawbacks that usually emerge from the implementation of sunshine laws in the operations and management activities of governmental organizations in the United States. Such problems include competing interests inherent in efforts to achieve public accountability without stifling individual privacy rights and institutional autonomy. These concerns can be addressed by exceptions spelled out in the Government in the Sunshine Act, which identifies special circumstances where the requirements described by the sunshine laws can be shelved. Such circumstances include:
- Sensitive information touching on national security matters
- Internal organizational prohibitions and rules
- Records and information related to criminal accusations and indictments
- Information that may trigger unfavorable speculation on financial institutions and processes
- Records and information that may tamper with ongoing investigations
- Information that may interfere with an individual's constitutional rights to privacy
- Information and documentation that touches on ongoing legal proceedings involving a government agency
The need for continued improvements of sunshine laws is demonstrated by increased controversies and financial losses that hit both public and private organizations in the United States at the onset of the twenty-first century. Therefore, government agencies in America have no recourse but to honor the statutory obligations requiring them to enhance public scrutiny and access to all their activities. Citizens have a responsibility to use the increased access to government information to make positive contributions of suggestion and ideas towards the development activities of their home states and counties.
OPENING UP ON THE WEB
Many government agencies have moved a notch higher by making government information more accessible by use of information technology systems. The United States government and state governments facilitate easy public access to government information by developing electronic databases, online registries, and Internet directories. Moreover, the United States government continuously updates the Sunshine Act, the Public Records Act, and the Freedom of Information Act to suit the latest information technology trends, accountability demands, and transparency practices.
McLendon, Michael, K., and James C. Hearn. “Mandated Openness in Public Higher Education: A Field Study of State Sunshine Laws and Institutional Governance.” Journal of Higher Education, 1 July 2006. Available from: http://goliath.ecnext.com/coms2/gi_0199-5655886/Mandated-openness-in-public-higher.html.
Tolentino Francis, N. “Sunshine Laws and Transparency.” Manila Bulletin. 17 October 2007.
Statutes that mandate that meetings of governmental agencies and departments be open to the public at large.
Through sunshine laws, administrative agencies are required to do their work in public, and as a result, the process is sometimes called "government in the sunshine." A law that requires open meetings ordinarily specifies the only instances when a meeting can be closed to the public and mandates that certain procedures be followed before a particular meeting is closed. The freedom of information act (5 U.S.C.A. § 552) requires agencies to share information they have obtained with the public. Exceptions are permitted, in general, in the interest of national security or to safeguard the privacy of businesses.