FOIA stories: 600 and counting

The SGI “FOIA Files” database has surpassed 600 entries, a testament to the persistence of journalists and the hard work of agency personnel who process Freedom of Information Act requests.  This database is a collection of news and other stories that relied on a FOIA request to inform the public.

In the last year, FOIA has enabled the public to understand more about the politics and policies that shape people’s lives:

The recent financial crisis and its ongoing impact on the economy:
#592: “How Hank Paulson’s inaction helped Goldman Sachs” (10/10/10)
#615: “Morgan Stanley Speculating to Brink of Collapse Got $107 Billion From Fed” (8/22/11)
#616: “Wall Street Aristocracy Got $1.2 Trillion in Secret Loans” (8/22/11)

Fallout from disasters, both natural and man-made, continues to confound government and affect people’s lives:
#589: “Spills raise fears about inspection of pipelines” (9/26/10)
#599: “Emails show struggle to estimate size of Gulf of Mexico oil spill” (11/25/10)
#613: “U.S. Nuclear Regulators Privately Doubted Power Plants Despite Expressing Public Confidence, Documents Show” (4/6/11)
#614: “Emails expose BP’s attempts to control research into impact of Gulf oil spill” (4/15/11)

War and its consequences continue to ripple through people’s lives:
#585: “Psych meds spike among younger troops” (9/3/10)
#586: “Veterans Agency Changes Terms for Prudential Claims” (9/14/10)
#602: “Documents raise questions on treatment of detainees” (1/22/11)

Law-enforcement agencies try to maintain a balance between effective, appropriate surveillance and respecting civil liberties:
#603: “Photographer Ernest Withers doubled as FBI informant to spy on civil rights movement” (9/12/10)
#604: “EFF obtains docs that reveal when authorities can get your data from social media companies” (1/20/11)
#605: “Civil Rights Activist Benjamin Hooks’ FBI File Details Racist Threats Against Him” (1/25/11)
#612: “APNewsBreak: File shows threats on abortion doctor” (4/5/11)

We look forward to finding more stories that use FOIA to inform the public as requests work their way through the pipeline and journalists continue to use government information to help explore and explain the world around us.

Issa Offers Transparency Reform Package

On Monday, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) introduced H.R. 2146, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2011 (DATA Act; text), in an effort to make federal spending information easier to collect and track, so people can evaluate and compare federal expenditures. The legislation is designed to build on previous legislative efforts and technological advances, while establishing an independent board to monitor federal spending.

“Incompatible technologies, inaccurate data, and a lack of common standards impede transparency,” Issa explained in a press release. “The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act will revolutionize the accessibility of government information.”

The DATA Act builds on previous transparency initiatives such as USASpending.gov, a product of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 (FFATA), and Recovery.gov, an offshoot of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. (It also comes the same day the Obama administration issued an executive order pushing very similar efforts.) The DATA Act, if enacted, will:

  • consolidate information reported by agencies and recipients on a single electronic platform,
  • reduce overlapping reporting systems/websites/databases,
  • delegate some federal-spending tracking responsibilities from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to a proposed Federal Accountability and Spending Transparency Board (“FAST Board”), and
  • empower the FAST Board to establish standards for data.

Shortcomings in existing federal data and reporting practices led Issa to introduce these adaptations. For example, the Sunlight Foundation found that USASpending.gov was providing flawed data about federal programs, which prevents people from seeing trends or drawing meaningful conclusions. However, as OMB Watch notes, the DATA Act takes one step forward at the price of threatening to take two steps back when the new law would expire. That’s because House rules of the 112th Congress require new programs to sunset within seven years (unless successfully reenacted into law). And because the DATA Act repeals FFATA instead of merely updating it, after seven years the DATA Act’s sunset would take its FFATA-related provisions with it, leaving us with no DATA Act – and no FFATA either.

We agree that federal spending data could – and should – be gathered and maintained in a more efficient manner. We suspect that improvements in technology can keep up with an ever-increasing volume of data. We hope Congress can create systems for handling this data and acting on it that are more functional than the status quo… but not at the cost of undoing some of the hard-won progress of recent years.

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