Today many federal agencies released Open Government Plans as part of the White House’s efforts to promote greater transparency, collaboration and participation. While we have yet to go through many of these plans, they are a second or third step toward engraving transparency into the cornerstones of federal agencies. We hope these flagship initiatives, plans and reports result ultimately in a more open government for years and administrations to come.
The frustrations with FOIA — long delays due to huge backlogs, lack of communication between agencies and requesters, and having little recourse when disputes arise — are longstanding. Reporters and other requesters are likely to see these problems persist for a very long time, however some agencies are making significant changes from the high-level management attention to FOIA. And that’s a good thing.
SGI will be focusing on the aspects of the plans dealing with the Freedom of Information Act; FOIA is the best tool for getting agencies to disclose inconvenient or embarrassing information, and its strength and effectiveness in getting timely information to the public is vital to any open government efforts.
We’ll also be looking into the recently released Chief FOIA Officer reports to see how serious and promising agencies are in strengthening how FOIA works.
Some agencies that filed Open Government Plans may appear to step gingerly in the waters of open government, but even promises should not be taken lightly. The Department of Health and Human Services deserves a pat on the back for including an honest appraisal of their FOIA operations. For example, here’s an excerpt from section 3.7 of the HHS plan (dealing with FOIA operations):
- Annual Reporting is Manual. Although the annual report requires the collection of several numbers that might serve as good performance indicators, this is undermined by inconsistencies in the definitions for the terms in the report. A complex request in one FOIA office might require a significantly different amount of work than a complex request in another. The annual report shows nothing of whether long delays are due to fundamentally difficult redaction questions, due to slow response time of the program holding the records, or due to a backlog in disclosure analysis. Since the Department’s annual report is compiled manually, more frequent collection of metrics is not feasible without systematic changes.
- Technology is Underutilized. The challenges encountered in compiling the annual report underlie the differences in technology utilization across the HHS FOIA offices. Most of the HHS FOIA offices do not offer online submission of requests. There are little or no common standards connecting any of the systems supporting HHS’s FOIA offices.
In the weeds, yes. But it’s important to know where the problems are to fix them. And for the public to see these baseline assessments to track the agencies’ progress (or lack thereof) in making FOIA work better.