The American government has always done a shoddy job of handling its public records.
In the post-Revolutionary War period, administrators rarely documented their daily business. “The proceedings of American society often leave behind fewer records than a private family does,” Alexis de Tocqueville observed during his nine-month visit here in 1831. “Nothing is written or, if it is, it flies off in the slightest gust of wind like Sibylline leaves, to vanish without recall.”
Lugging a trunk filled with original records gifted to him by clerks, de Tocqueville predicted that Americans would, over generations, improve their skill in the administrative “science.” Yet the enlarged bureaucracy familiar to us today presents its own challenge for government record-keeping: the documents are surely better maintained, but citizens are too often blocked from access by excessive delays and withholding.
Here at On the Records, we believe transparency is fundamental to democracy and essential for good governance. We expect leaders not to deflect scrutiny from those who elected them, and we expect decisions to be rendered in full public view. The American people constructed institutions to conduct public business, but we never ceded the right to know what those agencies do on our behalf.
This blog will document hindrances to obtaining public records, point to admirable examples of openness, analyze court cases that dictate what records can disclosed, and explain how journalists are using the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and state open records laws to uncover wrongdoing.
Although de Tocqueville once said it would be more difficult to gather “authentic documents” about the American society than “about the administration of medieval France,” he also pointed out that responsive government is a distinctively American tradition. Here at On the Records, we will work to see that people’s sovereignty, “acknowledged in custom, celebrated by law,” continues into our era.