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January 24, 2012
So How Open Are We, Really?
 
Canadians apparently envy the open communication policies that exist for government-connected scientists in the U.S. The Canadian Science Writers' Association has been appealing to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other national leaders to allow scientists to speak freely with the media. As things stand now, according to a column in The Globe and Mail, they need the government's permission to speak, and it's not readily given. 

Muzzled Canadian scientists cite the Obama Administration's declared commitment to transparency in government. Last month, for instance, the U. S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued guidelines making it clear that "scientists can speak about their work at any time, to anyone." That policy, writes Mark Hume in The Globe and Mail, "flowed from a memo President Barack Obama sent to the heads of executive departments in 2009. In that missive, he affirmed his support for transparency in government and urged directors to foster a culture of scientific integrity.

"The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions," Obama wrote.

On the other hand, The Washington Examiner is reporting that the Obama Administration deserves a "failing grade on government transparency." The reality, says Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, Inc., in the Examiner, is that "President Obama and members of his administration "have made public relations feints towards more transparency," but the practice is otherwise. 

"Judicial Watch," writes Fitton, "is the most active requestor of records through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the country. And since this administration stonewalls us on even the most basic requests about what the government is up to, we're the most active FOIA litigator as well." Other organizations "from across the ideological spectrum", he adds, have joined Judicial Watch in testifying against the Administration's "stonewalling" — the same sort of complaint that's being made in Canada.

"The Obama Administration," Fitton adds, "is less transparent than was the George W. Bush administration, which was supposedly the pinnacle of government secrecy."

Well, we don't know the reality of the relational climate in either Washington or Ottawa or Washington, but these two reports aren't encouraging. Suffice it to say that public relations in any sector — government or private — isn't supposed to be a cynical craft but one that promotes healthy, open informational relationships.  Its practitioners, in government or out, aren't supposed to be fostering queasy, despondent relationships, but positive, open ones. Elsewise, the state of the union becomes cramped and calloused. 

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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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