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National Sunshine Week survey reveals cynicism over government secrecy
Scripps Howard News Service


March 16, 2010

Public cynicism that the federal government operates in an atmosphere of secrecy is as strong as ever, despite President Barack Obama's promises to make government information more easily available to the public.

A new survey of 1,001 adult residents of the United States found that 70 percent believe that the federal government is either "very secretive" or "somewhat secretive." The largest portion of respondents, 44 percent, said it is "very secretive."

That matches the worst rating the federal government received during the final year of George W. Bush's presidency.

The poll is part of a five-year series of studies into public attitudes toward government openness commissioned by The American Society of News Editors. It was conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University. The latest survey is being released Sunday, the beginning of National Sunshine Week.

The survey also found that people believe state and local governments tend to be much more "open and transparent" in their operations than the federal government. Only 36 percent believe their local governments are very or somewhat secretive. Forty-eight percent said the same of their state governments.

On his first full day in office last year, Obama ordered all federal agencies to adopt what he called a "presumption in favor of disclosure" when handling requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The poll found that only 32 percent are familiar with this order.

Americans familiar with the president's executive order were asked: "Do you think Obama's order has made federal agencies more open when people ask for information, or not?" Thirty-two percent said the order made agencies more open, 47 percent said the agencies have not become more open and 21 percent were uncertain or gave other responses.

The survey found that attitudes on federal openness are strongly related to whether people approve of Obama's performance as president. Fifty percent said they approve, 40 percent disapprove and 10 percent are undecided or gave different responses.

Among people who approve of Obama's job performance, nearly half said the government has become more open thanks to his executive order, while about a quarter said government has not become more open. Among those who disapprove of his performance, however, more than two-thirds said government has not become more open following Obama's executive order.

All survey participants were asked if "there is more secrecy, less secrecy or about the same amount of secrecy in the Obama administration as in the previous administration." Thirty-eight percent said there's about the same amount of secrecy, 34 percent said the government's become less secret under Obama and 22 percent said it has become even more secretive. Six percent were uncertain or gave other responses.

Attitudes on the openness of the federal government have changed in recent years. In the first poll conducted for National Sunshine Week in 2006, 22 percent of respondents said they believed the federal government was "very secretive." It rose to 37 percent in 2007, 44 percent in 2008 and then dropped slightly to 40 percent in 2009 at the beginning of the Obama administration.

The latest survey was conducted from Feb. 3 to March 9 at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University under a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation. The poll has a margin of error of about 4 percentage points.

Sunshine Week ( is a nonpartisan open-government initiative led by The American Society of News Editors ( 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 (


E-mail Thomas Hargrove at hargrovet(at)
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