The Government in the Sunshine Act was passed by the Congress of the United States in 1976. It required for the first time that all multithreaded federal agencies (meaning those which have units that work independent of each other) hold their meetings regularly in public session. The bill explicitly defined meetings as essentially any gathering, formal or informal, of agency members, stretching so far as to include conference calls.
Many federal agencies, most notably the independent regulatory agencies, are headed by collegial bodies. A clear example of this setup can be found in the five commissioners of the Federal Trade Commission. These agencies make most of their decisions through discussions and voting by the board or commissions members. This law was created so that these meetings would be in the public domain for all of us to review, so that if we wish, we can investigate the procedures and decisions of any multithreaded federal agency.
This bill was conceived and passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal, when American mistrust of government was running very high. The government responded by creating various committees to open the meetings of the government, but without a legal backbone to stand on, these groups were wholly ineffective. After some pressure from the public, the act was passed in order to provide a legal backbone for the opening of meeting records to the public.
Obviously, there are some exceptions to this bill. Exempt from being in the "sunshine" are meetings dealing directly with matters of national security, court proceedings (in order to maintain some degree of fairness in the court system), personnel problems, and other matters which would bear some serious legal ramifications if held publicly.
This act helped open the door for the cable networks C-SPAN and C-SPAN2, which air virtually all significant hearings in Congress, as well as a great number of federal agency meetings. Also due to this measure are online services such as Thomas, where you can retrieve details and minutes from such meetings.
This bill is not without drawbacks. A major drawback is the reduction in collegial behavior among committee members; the ability to speak freely in meetings is utterly lost, because transcripts of the meetings are part of the public domain. As a result, the chairman gains a great deal of power, because the group is much more willing (without a real voice to lead by) to follow behind his actions. It is this situation that has lead to Alan Greenspan's iron grip on the Federal Reserve Board, for example.
A major question in terms of the Sunshine Act today is whether or not the act should extend to email. At the current time, email is supposedly being stored in a private archive while this issue is debated and (likely) makes its way through the court system.
Another issue revolving around this act is the tendency of some groups to find ways to get around the act, mostly revolving around calling meetings by other names, such as "staff collectives" and other such names. To that effect, a committee has been created to deal with these issues on a case by case basis; the Special Committee To Review The Government In The Sunshine Act. This group largely evaluates the act and how it should apply in various situations; it also recommends changes in wording from time to time.
In conjunction with the Freedom of Information Act and the Public Records Act, the Government in the Sunshine Act allows any citizen to easily obtain records on the meetings of government agencies. One merely has to contact the Federal Register to receive all such records; these records are available online as well.