newsPolls.org newsPolls.org newsPolls.org newsPolls.org ohiou.edu

Sunshine Poll: Americans support open government

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: March 13, 2009

Americans overwhelmingly support President Obama's order that federal agencies must show a "presumption in favor of disclosure" when asked to open government records to the public, an order issued during his first full day in office.

But a survey of 946 adult residents of the United States also found that 61 percent believe the federal government "only sometimes, rarely or never" obeys the Freedom of Information Act that requires such disclosure.

Yet the survey, commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University, also found that the erosion of the public's confidence in the openness of the national government has slowed or even reversed slightly after three years of dramatic declines.

"Trust in government has been on the decline for some time in the United States," said Jerry Miller, director of the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. "The previous administration's disclosure policies certainly contributed to public skepticism. People now appear more optimistic, but still guarded, about President Obama and the current administration's disclosure practices under the Freedom of Information Act."

The survey found that a majority of Republicans, Democrats and political independents said they approve of Obama's call for openness in the federal government. A large majority of self-described conservative, moderates and liberals supported the president's initiative as did people of every race and ethnicity.

"The more open our government, the more inclusive the processes that impact our everyday lives," said Rich Boehne, president and chief executive officer of the E.W. Scripps Co., which owns Scripps Howard News Service.

The survey found that two-thirds of the respondents have heard of the Freedom of Information Act, although only 6 percent said they've personally made a request for federal information under the act.

Only about 27 percent believe the federal government "always or usually" obeys the Freedom of Information Act, while 61 percent said the government "only sometimes, rarely or never" obeys it and 12 percent were uncertain.

Even if they worry the government ignores the Freedom of Information Act, three-quarters of the people in the survey said they look upon the act as "a good law."

The first Scripps poll conducted for National Sunshine Week in 2006 found that 22 percent said they believe the federal government is "very secretive" in how it operates. That figure grew to 37 percent in 2007 and 44 percent in 2008. The latest survey found that 40 percent believe the government is highly secretive.

"It's heartening there is a reversal in the downward trend of public confidence in the openness of the federal government," said Andy Alexander, co-chair of the American Society of Newspaper Editor's FOI Committee.

"But it's sobering to note that more than half of those surveyed said they still believe their government only sometimes, rarely or never abides by disclosure requirements mandated by law," added Alexander, the ombudsman at The Washington Post.

The survey was conducted by telephone from Feb. 16 through March 11 at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University under a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation.

The survey has a margin of error of about 4 percentage points.

Sunshine Week (www.sunshineweek.org) is a nonpartisan open-government initiative led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (www.asne.org), with online and broadcast media, public officials, celebrities, civic groups, nonprofits, libraries, schools, religious leaders and others.

Sunshine Week is endowed through a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (www.knightfdn.org).