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.

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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]


Senate Judiciary Committee to Hold Business Meeting on State Secrets and FOIA Legislation

April 21, 2009

On Thursday, April 23, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold an Executive Business Meeting, during which it will consider two bills of importance to AALL:

  • S. 417, States Secret Protection Act to enact a safe, fair, and responsible state secrets privilege Act; and
  • H.R. 985/S. 448, Free Flow of Information Act of 2009 to make Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemptions more transparent.

We will keep you updated on the Committee’s progress on these bills.

For a full list of all of the bills AALL is tracking, please see Section 3.2 of the Advocacy Toolkit. For the monthly round up of legislation we’re watching and other updates from the Government Relations Office, plus news from AALL chapters, please sign up to receive the Washington E-Bulletin through the Advocacy Listserv or Blawg, or visit our Web site to read it online.

[Posted by Emily Feldman]


Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act

January 22, 2009

As I stated in the previous Blawg post, yesterday’s White House Memoranda on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Transparency and Open Government have not yet been posted on the White House Web site. The Memorandum on FOIA is posted below.

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release       January 21, 2009

MEMORANDUM FOR THE HEADS OF EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENTS AND AGENCIES

SUBJECT:      Freedom of Information Act

A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government. At the heart of that commitment is the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and the citizenry alike.

The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.

The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.

I direct the Attorney General to issue new guidelines governing the FOIA to the heads of executive departments and agencies, reaffirming the commitment to accountability and transparency, and to publish such guidelines in the Federal Register. In doing so, the Attorney General should review FOIA reports produced by the agencies under Executive Order 13392 of December 14, 2005. I also direct the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to update guidance to the agencies to increase and improve information dissemination to the public, including through the use of new technologies, and to publish such guidance in the Federal Register.

This memorandum does not create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

The Director of the Office of Management and Budget is hereby authorized and directed to publish this memorandum in the Federal Register.

BARACK OBAMA


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