Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Privatizing Government Secrecy: As Governments Contract out More Responsibility to Private Business, Public Access to This Information Is Being Squeezed

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Privatizing Government Secrecy: As Governments Contract out More Responsibility to Private Business, Public Access to This Information Is Being Squeezed

Article excerpt

As governments contract out more responsibility to private business, public access to this information is being squeezed

AN AGE-OLD government impulse --to keep its business as secret as possible--is finding renewed life in an increasingly trendy government practice: privatization.

As governments local, state and federal contract out more of their responsibilities to private business in the name of cost savings and efficiency, public access to government information is being dramatically squeezed, freedom of information activists are warning.

"When you are dealing with private businesses doing public business, you are losing access," said Paige St. John, an environmental reporter for the Detroit News.

St. John and other journalists and activists recently gathered in Troy, Mich., for what is believed to be the first seminar exploring the effect privatization is having on Fol access. The session was sponsored by Great Lakes Region of Women in Communications Inc. (WICI).

The journalists and speakers representing both proponents and opponents of privatization pretty much agreed on one point: Whatever its merits, privatization as it is practiced these days is growing dramatically, and often as dramatically is shutting out the public.

Privatization raises "very serious public policy issues," said Sheila Strunk, legislative chairwoman for United Auto Workers Local 6000, which represents about a third of Michigan state workers.

"It is a question of how your tax dollars are spent. It is a question of potential for fraud, corruption and abuse. It is a question of public access to services," said Strunk, an opponent of Michigan Gov. John Engler's enthusiastic campaign to privatize a wide variety of state services.

Journalists in particular complain that privatization has become a convenient way for government to stop providing public information.

"What typically happens is a reporter goes to the [government] agency to ask about something. The agency says, |I don't know anything about that. Ask the private business" and the business says, |I don't have to tell you that, ask the government" " said Tim Richard, chairman of the Michigan Freedom of Information Committee Inc.

While privatization is booming--in Michigan, for example, Gov. Engler has proposed privatizing dozens of services ranging from vegetable inspection to veterans hospital care--many state Fol laws actually hamper access to information about privatized operations.

Michigan's Fol law is a typical example.

For one thing, the law requires the government to disclose only information the government requires from a private business.

"The press, and therefore the public, can send FoIA [requests] only to government agencies, and not the private businesses themselves. So you can get only what the government itself wants to get," the Detroit News, St. John said.

If a journalist is interested in more information, he or she is pretty much out of luck, the UAW's Sheila Strunk said.

"The FoIA law specifically says [state agencies] are not required to create records to fulfill FoIA [requests]," Strunk said.

In fact, far from requiring information, Michigan in some of its privatization contracts expressly forbids private businesses from communicating in writing with anyone about the service, Strunk said.

"The system is designed to thwart anyone's attempt to discover what is going on," she said.

In Kalamazoo, Mich., citizens discovered that privatization effectively blocked public information about the most basic process of democracy: the ballot box.

Kalamazoo County privatized operation of voting machines and registration several years ago.

Last summer, Kalamazoo Gazette political columnist Charlotte Channing reported a "snarl of mistakes, many of them traced to [private contractor] Doubleday Bros. …

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