REPORT: Public Needs Floodlights Not Flashlights

March 30, 2012 -- Partnership for Working Families
Report cover page

Weak Sunshine Laws Leave Public In Dark

When government services shift to private contractors, taxpayers not only pay the bill, they risk losing once public information and the ability to oversee public services.  To expose this disturbing national trend, In the Public Interest (ITPI), a project of the Partnership, released a report in mid-March during Sunshine Week 2012. 

Stories of Unfair Practices Illustrate Need to Strengthen Laws 

The report, Floodlights Instead of Flashlights: Sunshine Laws Out of Step with Government Contracting Leaves Public and Lawmakers in the Dark, provides a comprehensive overview of the types of public information lost and describes a series of cases illustrating the real-world impact.  From negotiating monopoly-like contracts for providing services like city parking to hindering investigations into the state’s child welfare system, the report underscores how the loss of valuable information leaves advocates and policymakers unable to hold companies accountable.

"Key personnel and performance data is being held hostage by private companies while taxpayers foot the bill,” according to Shar Habibi, director of ITPI and principal researcher of the report. “What’s more insidious is the ability of these private corporations to not only conceal public information but to use it to their financial advantage to generate more revenue by exploiting public resources and assets.” 

Rights Abuses in Georgia Probation System Illustrate Problem

During a media briefing with advocates, Elizabeth Compa, the current Liman Fellow at the Southern Center for Human Rights joined Habibi to describe key findings.  Compa spoke of the difficulty in investigating rights abuses in the probation system in Georgia when a small group of lawmakers with a personal financial stake in a private probation contractor crafted legislation to protect the contractor from oversight, shrouding the contract process in secrecy. “Georgia’s system of protecting the public is broken and symbolizes what we know well – democratic values and integrity can be lost when a few with power can operate in the dark.” 

Editorials Echo the Call for Sunshine

Several newspapers around the country echoed the call for stronger laws to protect the public’s right to information, citing the report in editorials.   Guest editorials from ITPI Chair Donald Cohen were published in several outlets and blogs including the The Huffington Post, Detroit Free Press and Taunton Daily Gazette.  Generating media coverage supports a core strategy for the project which strives to increases its role as an information clearinghouse offering real-time analysis on efforts to outsource public services and obligations.