House Unanimously Passes FOIA Reform

February 26, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

Last night, the House of Representatives voted 410-0 to pass the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act (H.R. 1211) nearly a year after the bill was introduced. AALL joined a number of organizations earlier this week in a show of support for the bill, which would put into the law the “presumption of openness” established in President Barack Obama’s Open Government Memorandum, subsequent Open Government Directive, and Attorney General Eric Holder’s FOIA memorandum.

The FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act includes enhancements to the authority of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS); establishes a Chief FOIA Officers Council to review compliance with the act and to recommend improvements; encourages more proactive disclosure; and advances the creation of a central, online portal for making FOIA requests and checking on the status of those requests.

Following yesterday’s unanimous vote, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VI) tweeted about the “big win for #OpenGov.” He said in a statement, “Transparency in government is a critical part of restoring trust and the House will continue to work to make government more transparent and accessible to all Americans. By expanding the FOIA process online, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act creates greater transparency and continues our open government efforts in the House.”

The bill now moves on to the Senate, where a similar FOIA reform bill passed unanimously last Congress.


Farm Bill Moves Forward Without Anti-Transparency Language

February 3, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

We’re pleased to the report that, after pressure from powerful members of Congress and the open government community, the farm bill moved forward last week without the proposed provisions to cut off public access to information about agricultural and livestock information.  On January 29, the House approved by a vote of 251 to 166 the Agricultural Act of 2014 (H. Rept. 113-333), the Senate-House conference report to replace the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, which expired on October 1, 2013.

Language originally included in the House-passed bill would have prohibited disclosure of information about any owner, operator, or employee of an agricultural or livestock operation. The public— particularly neighbors of such operations— requires access to information about the operations to ensure their health and safety. This language would have undermined the Freedom of Information Act’s (FOIA) goal of transparency and extended personal privacy protections to corporate farms. On November 6, 2013, AALL joined more than 40 organizations in urging members of the conference committee on the Farm Bill not to include the harmful language.

AALL has joined several organizations on letters of thanks to Senator Patrick Leahy and Congressmen Elijah Cummings and Henry Waxman for their support and leadership in removing the provisions in the final version. We expect the conference report will be debated and voted upon in the Senate shortly.


White House Commitments Would Expand Access to Information

November 5, 2013

By Elizabeth

During last week’s Open Government Partnership (OGP) meeting in London, the Obama administration released a preview of its U.S. Open Government National Action Plan 2.0 (NAP). While the second NAP will not be finalized until December 2013, six new commitments to further advance the goals of transparency and accountability in the federal government were announced. They include expanding open data, increasing fiscal and corporate transparency, advancing citizen engagement, more effectively managing public resources, and most significantly, modernizing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

In the White House’s own words, “the FOIA encourages accountability through transparency and represents a profound national commitment to open government principles. Improving FOIA administration is one of the most effective ways to make the U.S. Government more open and accountable.”  In its new commitment, the administration pledges to implement a consolidated online FOIA portal that allows the public to submit a request to any Federal agency from a single site, develop common FOIA regulations and practices across agencies, and create an interagency working group and advisory committee to improve FOIA processing. FOIA professionals and agency staff will also receive improved FOIA trainings.

The draft OGP plan also includes a commitment to re-launch Data.gov with an expanded index of all agency data sets and special campaigns to unlock agricultural, nutrition and disaster-related data. In an effort to make government data more accessible and useful, federal agencies will also be required to develop an inventory of their data and publish a list of datasets that are public or can be made public. Under the title “Managing Government Data as a Strategic Asset”, the plan pledges that agencies will also develop new mechanisms to solicit public feedback regarding open government data.

AALL applauds the administration for their continued commitment to transparency reforms and we look forward to the release of the second National Action Plan. Access to government information is crucial to a just, democratic society and informed citizenry. AALL will continue to work with the administration and other organizations to promote policies, regulations, and guidance which encourage openness, transparency, and public participation.


GAO Audit of OGIS is Mixed Review

October 2, 2013

By Elizabeth

A recent General Accountability Office (GAO) audit of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) gave mixed reviews to the agency’s success in meeting its statutory responsibilities. OGIS is charged with recommending policy changes to improve the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process, offering mediation services to help resolve disputes between requestors and agencies, and acting as ombudsman by responding to the needs of the diverse FOIA community.  While recognizing the constraints of OGIS’s limited budget, the GAO report concludes that OGIS’s actions are not as robust as they should be to effectively comply with the law and points to the failure of OGIS to create a plan for conducting comprehensive reviews of federal agencies’ FOIA policies or compliance.

Since its establishment in 2009, OGIS has provided comments on proposed FOIA regulations for 18 of 99 federal agencies that administer FOIA, as well as a number of Privacy Act system of records notices, according to the GAO report. While OGIS has suggested improvements to a number of those regulations and notices, GAO finds it has “not performed the reviews of regulations and notices in a proactive, comprehensive manner, and has not conducted any reviews of agencies’ compliance with the law.” OGIS is in the early stages of developing a methodology for conducting such reviews and GAO recommends that they agency set a time frame for completing this work and under which to begin carrying out proactive evaluations of agency compliance. The report also calls for the creation of performance measures for its mediation services.

In a blog post last week, director of OGIS Miriam Nisbet responded to some the criticism leveled in the GAO report.  Ms. Nisbet points to the “lessons learned” in the last four years of OGIS’s work, highlighting that above all “It is challenging to define ‘success’ in providing mediation services.” Given OGIS’s broad mandate and the great demand for OGIS’s services, the constraints of a small staff, limited budget, and large caseload present challenges.  Further, it is not obvious that Congress necessarily intended for OGIS to conduct comprehensive reviews, as GAO assumes, or that such an approach is necessary for OGIS to exercise effective oversight.

OGIS is working on an action plan to respond to the challenges identified in the GAO report and will share it with the public in the coming weeks. AALL has been supportive of OGIS and its important work in mediating FOIA disputes and offering training to agencies, and we commend the agency’s leadership in developing a uniform, centralized location to make and manage information requests. We hope to see continued Congressional support for OGIS. By promoting the availability and importance of OGIS’s mediation work, the government can avoid the animosity and costs associated with litigation and better facilitate the legal right of access to government information under FOIA.


FOIA Portal Now Open to Public

October 3, 2012

By Elizabeth

Monday marked the launch of the much-anticipated FOIAonline, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) “portal” or “module” aimed at streamlining FOIA requests and administration across agencies. Developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Commerce Department, and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the new website offers a “multi-agency, shared-services solution” for FOIA requesters and uniform tool for FOIA administration. Users may now submit and track FOIA requests using the portal, search and download requests and response records, correspond with processing staff, and file appeals. In addition to EPA, Commerce, and NARA, two smaller agencies, the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Federal Labor Relations Authority, have begun using the system to process FOIA requests.

Perhaps the best feature of FOIAonline is its ability to allow requesters and non-requesters alike to search a database of released FOIA documents. Users may search across agencies for similar FOIA requests or browse all released documents on a search term. The system also provides a new reports feature in which users can run queries on FOIA backlogs, average processing times of requests, and a variety of other criteria. OpenTheGovernment.org has provided this neat infographic of the site’s features:

Image

In previous discussions of the module, EPA, Commerce, and NARA noted that several other agencies were considering use of FOIAonline for their agencies’ requests, with the ultimate goal of directing all FOIA requests through the site. Remember, the content available on FOIAonline is only as good as the requests made. Users are encouraged to create an account to allow easy request tracking and can expect more information—and hopefully more agencies—on FOIAonline soon.


OpenTheGovernment’s 2012 Secrecy Report

September 14, 2012

By Elizabeth

Earlier this week, OpenTheGovernment.org released the latest edition of their annual Secrecy Report. This year’s report reveals mixed marks for the Obama administration’s open government policies, highlighting both positive developments and room for improvement.

Several signs of progress of are of note. For example, the government processed more Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in 2011 than the previous year and brought the average cost of fulfilling a FOIA request down by more than $2. So far in his term, President Obama has not once cited executive privilege to deny Congressional requests for information, and the administration has also declassified previously secret defense information, some of which has not been declassified since the end of the Cold War.

However, there are still causes of concern around the administration’s level of secrecy, especially in light of the President’s bold promise of “unprecedented transparency.”  FOIA requests, the report noted, rose 5 percent from fiscal 2010 to 2011, and agencies processed 644,165, or 8 percent, more than the previous year— yet the backlog grew by 20 percent, reaching 83,490. It’s likely that the National Declassification Center will not meet its goal for declassifying old records on time. And while the volume of documents marked “Classified” continues to grow, there has been little assurance or reason offered for the decision that the information properly needs such protection.

The 2012 Secrecy Report includes a look at the limitations of the data the government currently makes available.  From the press release from OpenTheGovernment.org:

Missing and misleading data have a very real effect on the public’s ability to trust that the government is using taxpayer monies wisely, and that it is following its own policies. “Good information is essential for the public to know what interests are influencing government policies, and more,” said [Dr. Patrice McDermott, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment.org]. “Partial and mis- information, however, erodes accountability and prevents the public from having an informed debate about critical national issues.”

AALL is a founding member of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of 80+ groups advocating for open and accountable government. We’ll be joining a live Twitter chat with the report’s contributors on Tuesday, September 18th from 4–5 p.m. EDT. Follow us at @AALL_GRO and join the conversation with #secrecy12.


Department of Justice Launches FOIA.gov

March 16, 2011

In celebration of Sunshine Week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Information Policy launched FOIA.gov, the flagship initiative of DOJ’s Open Government Plan. The site is a one-stop-shop for information about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and access to data from agency annual reports. Users can search for data from a single agency or compare data from multiple agencies, as well as analyze data over time (back to 2008). Data can also be downloaded in XML.

In addition, FOIA.gov includes an excellent glossary of terms that will help the public better understand the FOIA process, with links to videos that answer common questions like, “What are FOIA exemptions?” and “What is a backlog?”.

As we noted in our audit of the Department of Justice’s Open Government Plan, DOJ’s flagship initiative was based on an idea submitted by the open government community for the creation of a FOIA Dashboard.

Congratulations to the Department of Justice for the successful launch of FOIA.gov.


CREW Finds FOIA Implementation Problems Continue

October 22, 2010

A new report by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), FOIA at the Mid-term: Obstacles to Transparency Remain, reveals that though there has been some progress since President Obama released his Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act and Attorney General Holder followed up with guidance for agencies, there has not been a major shift in the FOIA culture across the Federal government. CREW surveyed hundreds of FOIA professionals and found that a lack of staffing and funding are the biggest impediments to successfully implementing the FOIA.

We were very pleased when Anne Weismann, Chief Counsel for CREW, joined us in Denver for a panel discussion on “The Future of FOIA” (J1). She expressed at the time her sense that while many pieces to improve FOIA had been put in place under the Obama Administration, there’s still a long way to go to shift toward a culture of government transparency. This report confirms her statements and emphasizes the need for the Administration to continue to take steps to support government agencies in order to improve FOIA processes.

[Posted by Emily Feldman]


A Closer Look at the “Future of FOIA”

July 22, 2010

On Tuesday, July 13, during the Annual Meeting in Denver, AALL Government Relations Committee member Susan Nevelow Mart moderated a panel discussion on “The Future of FOIA” (J1). The program featured Miriam Nisbet, Director of the new Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and Anne Weismann, Chief Counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

Employing an engaging, conversational style format, the speakers highlighted recent changes in FOIA and the important work of OGIS in mediating FOIA disputes and offering training to agencies. Ms. Nisbet thanked AALL for supporting the creation of OGIS as part of the OPEN Government Act of 2007 (P.L. 110-175) and ensuring that it was housed at NARA.

Ms. Nisbet gave an overview of the work that her office, which was established in September 2009, has been doing to help requestors and educate agencies, and her hopes to continue to expand outreach to members of the public and agencies. She explained that in this era of “information inflation,” it’s especially important to train agency personnel so that they can be more responsive to FOIA requests.

Ms. Weismann, a FOIA litigator, discussed some of the positive changes to FOIA under the Obama Administration. She noted that, “When Obama took office, it was like coming out of a very long, very dark tunnel.” OGIS, she said, “represents a bright spot on the FOIA horizon” and “fundamentally changes the relationship between the requestor and agency.”

Ms. Weismann discussed the excitement that open government advocates felt when President Obama released his Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act and Attorney General Holder followed up with guidance for agencies. However, she expressed her continued frustration  that while a lot of the pieces to improve FOIA have been put in place, there’s still a long way to go to change the culture of secrecy in government, even under the Obama Administration. For example, the Administration has continued to use some of the same arguments of the Bush Administration in several court cases with CREW, and initially refusing to disclose White House visitor logs. (The White House later changed its position and began posting online the records of visitors in September 2009.)

Susan Nevelow Mart has compiled a very valuable guide to FOI Resources on the Internet to help law librarians, academics and members of the public find more information about FOIA. It  includes links to the Web sites of agencies, universities and nonprofit organizations that host FOIA documents, as well as FOIA blogs and wikis. Thank you, Susan, for putting together this helpful resource and moderating this excellent program!

[Posted by Emily Feldman]


Sunshine Week Shines Light on FOIA

March 23, 2010

It’s been just over a year since Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidelines to executive branch departments and agencies on the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The guidelines, which direct agencies to adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure when responding to FOIA requests, reflected President Obama’s memorandum on FOIA that he released on his first full day in office.

While Attorney General Holder’s guidelines and President Obama’s memorandum sent a clear message to agencies that they must take steps to improve their FOIA practices, many agencies have not followed through. A new audit by the National Security Archive, released last week during Sunshine Week, found that only 13 agencies that responded to the Archive have made concrete changes in their FOIA practices. In addition, several agencies continue to have severe backlogs in processing requests, with some requests lingering for as many as 18 years.

On March 15, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), long-time FOIA advocates and the authors of the OPEN Government Act (P.L. 110-175), introduced the Faster FOIA Act (S. 3111). AALL joined 33 other open government groups on a letter to Senators Leahy and Cornyn in support of the bill, which would establish the Commission on Freedom of Information Act Processing Delays. The Commission would be charged with producing a report to Congress and the President within one year, after which the Commission would terminate, that recommends steps that should be taken to reduce delays in the administration of FOIA. This important bill would help address the serious long-standing problem with FOIA backlogs that the National Security Archive has repeatedly found in their excellent series of annual audits.

[Posted by Emily Feldman]


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