Interior- Employee Freedom to Speak to the Press

Department to allow employees more freedom to speak publicly
From E&E news..

Published: Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Interior Department is close to releasing a new communications policy that would give employees more freedom to speak to reporters and publish scholarly articles.

Under the new rules, employees would be able to publicly speak about departmental operations and activities as long as they follow rules that include not disclosing information protected by the Freedom of Information Act, according to a draft of the policy obtained by Greenwire. The new policy encourages scientists to publish research based on departmental projects and directs public affairs officials to be open with the news media.

The move is Interior’s latest step in complying with the White House’s order to develop policies that promote transparency and keep politics out of government research.

Interior earned praise for its overall scientific integrity policy, which it released in September 2010 (E&ENews PM, Sept. 29, 2010). But it has not updated its communications policy since 1999, and the new one has been a year in the making.

Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher said the department was in the “final stages” of revising the policy, which will apply to all the department’s agencies and bureaus.

“The new communications policy will affirm the importance of promoting the free flow of scientific, scholarly and technical information, and will emphasize openness, transparency, and accuracy,” he said in an email. “The new policy also will reflect key changes in the media landscape — including the emergence of social media tools and expanded access to online information. The policy will be available to the public once it is finalized.”

But the policy does include some restrictions for employees who publicly voice their opinions on agency work. For example, employees can speak to the news media but must notify the Office of Communications of any interviews that “may generate significant news coverage, public interest or inquiry.”

Employees also must seek guidance from a supervisor if an interview will involve information that Interior hasn’t already published or publicly released. They cannot disclose anything protected by FOIA, a notoriously nuanced law that protects some federal documents from public disclosure.

When shown the draft, advocacy groups applauded the overall policy but said it wasn’t clear enough to ensure a free exchange of ideas.

The FOIA provision, for example, reminds employees that they cannot disclose “pre-decisional and deliberative information” — a FOIA exemption that OMB Watch’s Gavin Baker said is often overused by agencies. Though employees should be following FOIA when speaking publicly, he said, Interior could give better guidance on how that might be applied in employees’ public comments.

“I think it has the risk of shutting down some valuable conversations,” said Baker, who follows scientific integrity efforts as a federal information policy analyst at OMB Watch. “I think there’s a concern that people will interpret this far too broadly, and it will really discourage information from getting out that ought to get out.”

Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, also contended that such unclear restrictions would dilute a policy that otherwise encourages more openness than at many agencies.

“Under these rules, scientists can speak out so long as they don’t say anything new or interesting,” Ruch said. “A scientist would have to consult a lawyer to know whether he or she could submit a paper for peer review, speak at a conference or answer questions from a reporter under these provisos.”

But Ruch and Gavin both commended the inclusion of a provision that prohibits public affairs officials from altering scientific information and gives internal experts a chance to review news releases for accuracy.

Overall, Interior’s draft policy is more lenient than those of many other agencies, such as U.S. EPA, which lacks specific communications rules. It would expand the opportunity for scientists to “take off their government hat” and give their opinions on their research, said Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“This is a terrific step forward for protecting the public good,” Grifo said. “We want and need to hear from federal scientists, and this policy makes that easier than it has been in the past.”

Note from Sharon: This seems very broad, but perhaps I am reading too much into it. Am I a federal scientist because of my job (not) or my background (yes). What if others in the agency think that the federal scientist has overstated the applicability of the researcher’s results? Can those employees also talk to “the press”?

I think posting whatever federal scientists want to say on a public blog where their interpretations can be openly debated would be far better for transparency and science education. We need to move some of these discussions “beyond traditional media,” in my opinion.

Would that give me free rein to give my opinion on my observations if they are not “research”? I like to share my opinion, as y’all know, so maybe I should start applying for jobs in Interior.

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