That’s a phrase we see often in movies, and a phrase we expect to hear from our government regarding military missions, special operations, and other national security issues.
It’s not a phrase we expect to hear from our local and state governments regarding hiring decisions, spending, or other public business.
And yet, that’s essentially what Texans are being told—in opposition to, and defiance of, the spirit of the law.
Texas governmental entities are required by the Texas Public Information Act, passed in 1973 and amended over time, to hand over data and documents on request, with some exceptions like personally identifying information, certain legal agreements and memos, and other content deemed off-limits by policymakers.
And yet, many governmental entities are either withholding more information than they should or barring its release altogether. Far too often, requests go ignored, delayed, or otherwise unheard. This isn’t right—the government works for the people, not the other way around. It shouldn’t hide what it’s doing—it works for us.
That much is made obvious by the preamble of Texas Government Code Section 552, which sets the stage for the PIA process entirely. It acknowledges that the government is the servant, not the master, of the people, and that the people are entitled to information about the affairs of government and the acts of public officials. It states that though the people delegated authority to the government, they did not give public servants the right to decide what is good or not good for the people to know. This philosophy is explicitly stated so as to guide the entirety of the provision.
Unfortunately, the spirit of the law is far different than the law as it is applied today. For instance, there are no real penalties for local and state governments that ignore requestors or who don’t respond in a timely fashion. That’s because the Public Information Act does not have sufficient penalties for tardiness or non-compliance—it’s illegal and unethical to ignore or purposely delay requests, yes, but what is the requestor going to do about it—request again?
The Public Information Act is a vital part of transparency and accountability. It must be strengthened to allow requestors to receive information in a timely manner and easily submit a complaint if information is withheld or delayed. The government is the servant of the people, and the people have a right to know.