Transparency and the Obama administration

Update (2/21/2013):  Here’s the online version of the story: http://fxn.ws/YDAU7F

I had the pleasure of talking about transparency (video) and the Obama administration this afternoon on Fox News.

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Can you give 5 minutes for FOIA Online?

For Sunshine Week 2013, SGI member groups are surveying federal agencies to help promote FOIA Online, a system to make, process, and view FOIA requests – and we need your help!

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Take your FOIA requester to work day?

FOIA officers: I’d like to see what you do all day.  Really.

A while ago I had the opportunity to talk with about 100 FOIA officers in the federal government about FOIA from the requester perspective.  I mentioned that the determined, distrustful and demanding face of many FOIA requesters hides a lack of understanding about what FOIA officers within agencies go through to respond to requests.  And I made an offer:  I’d like to follow a FOIA officer at any agency around for a day to see what FOIA officers need to do every day to push FOIA responses out the door.  Do they spend their day on the phone tracking down which offices may hold relevant information?  Do they hunch over desks redacting documents?  Do they badger government employees to go through their files and find documents, or convince reluctant employees that disclosing information upon request is not only lawful but required?  Once a response is ready to go out the door, do they consume energy filing reports to log their efforts for the annual reports?  I’d really like to know, and I’m willing to relay my experience to the public through this blog.  This is not a hit job — I promise no gotcha journalism.  I just want to know what it’s like to respond to FOIA requests, reduce backlogs, avoid unnecessary delays, and make sound decisions to disclose or withhold.

Are relationships with requesters really as bad as the stereotypical image of yelling, demanding requesters? Or is my hunch right that mostly callers are respectful if a little perplexed and uneducated about the reviews and steps necessary before a response goes out?

So this is a genuine appeal to FOIA officers everywhere to help me understand how your day goes.  Maybe you don’t want me hanging around all day.  A half day might work. Or even a one-hour call. I’m flexible. Let’s talk.

House panel’s pointed letter to Justice sends impatient message on #FOIA

In a renewed and welcome spirit of bipartisanship, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee earlier this week sent a letter to the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) asking pointed questions about OIP’s actions to encourage agencies to comply with FOIA by reducing backlogs, reigning in the use of statutory exemptions and updating FOIA regulations.  We’re especially appreciative that Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Ca.) and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) mentioned a database of the statutory exemptions to FOIA that we compiled and ProPublica published a while ago.

This is a great time for FOIA because so much has evolved since Congress enacted the 2007 FOIA amendments (pdf) five years ago. FOIA Online is now a realistic option for agencies to go digital with their FOIA operations while realizing huge savings for the federal government, an important aspect to getting any legislation through Congress.

Congress could mandate that agencies move to FOIA Online as their current contracts for FOIA processing expire, invest the savings from the move to a shared service to improving FOIA.  Improvements could include developing further the FOIA Online system, targeting efforts to improve FOIA processing and reduce backlogs and delays, and quickly convening a FOIA Delays Commission to compile and identify other areas for improvements.

There are many problems with FOIA administration today and many areas for improvement.  Some require executive branch action while others would require legislation.  Any legislative actions around FOIA will have attract the support of Senate and House leaders, a growing number of whom want to see the Freedom of Information Act inform the American public while protecting what deserves protection and serve as a dependable tool for obtaining from government vital information in a timely, efficient and impartial manner.

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