#FOIAsurvey update re: FOIAonline

Our efforts to survey federal agencies (@sgichris, #FOIAsurvey) about FOIAonline are starting to bear fruit. We have put out feelers to most of the forty agencies and departments responsible for over 99% of FOIA requests each year, and we can identify some trends:

  • There is definitely more interest. We had expected as much, since the FOIAonline portal offers distinct benefits for individual agencies and requesters, as well as members of each group in the aggregate, but it’s nice to have this recognized by additional agency FOIA personnel.
  • There are plenty of existing contracts. Which is how things should be; we’re glad agencies have invested in their FOIA-processing systems. We’d just like to see agencies consider FOIAonline as an option when the opportunity arises.
  • There is a lot of voicemail. Given the chronic laments of both FOIA requesters and agency staff, that a lack of resources prevents agencies from responding to FOIA requests and related questions as quickly as they’d like to, this is not a surprise. (We hope the people whose numbers we called were busy helping other callers at the time.)
  • There is some confusion. We did have one agency respond that FOIAonline is for agencies which don’t have an electronic processing system. To which we’d say, (1) We certainly hope any non-electronic agency at least investigates FOIAonline; (2) Even an agency with an electronic processing system may benefit from joining FOIAonline; and (3) We hope that nobody thinks “We’ve already got an electronic system so we shouldn’t even check out FOIAonline.”
  • Talking about these issues will help FOIAonline evolve. The EPA, Department of Commerce, and OGIS/NARA have developed FOIAonline through a thorough process, continuing to refine the system and reach out to stakeholders, and while they have summarized some of their most frequent answers, we think our survey can provide additional information and perspective.

While none of the above items may be a complete surprise, the first round of responses does make us optimistic that agencies are aware of FOIAonline, that they are aware of the benefits it is capable of offering, and that the current scope of agency involvement is a function of its recent development. One agency FOIA staffer explained that while the agency wasn’t ready to commit to FOIAonline yet, it did seem like it was the future.

So, we want to make sure it’s the best, most comprehensive and efficient future we can build.

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Sunshine in Government Award honors innovation in FOIA, Senator who defended news coverage

In honor of Sunshine Week, the Sunshine in Government Initiative (SGI) is pleased to recognize three leaders in government who will receive SGI’s Sunshine in Government Award (“Sunshine Award”) for their commitment and work to strengthen open government.

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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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Spring cleaning for b(3) provisions

Spring is a time of growth, change, and ritual; for the openness community, that means Sunshine Week, the release of agency annual FOIA reports, and fresh hope that this year will bring more transparency from the federal government.

Specifically, this year’s FOIA reports detail the use of several new b(3) provisions:

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Solar flare reminds us: Sunshine Week’s almost here

Scientists who study the sun note the massive solar flare hitting earth on March 8 is part of the sun’s natural cycle, however we’re pretty certain it’s celebrating Sunshine Week, which starts on Sunday, March 11.

Started by the American Society of News Editors and now coordinated jointly between ASNE and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (both SGI members), Sunshine Week is a celebration encouraging greater public appreciation of open government.

Government transparency is an essential value for democracy, but perhaps more importantly it plays a more practical role ensuring our leaders are doing what they say they will, spurring action to make our nation secure and our communities safer.

The calendar is full of events (the solar flare isn’t one of the scheduled actions) and we’re sure we’ll see some announcements not on the calendar.  Stay tuned.

By the way, don’t forget to turn your clocks back this weekend for Daylight Savings Time.  For Sunshine Week, of course.

Sunshine Week 2012

Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of open government, will be held March 11-17, 2012.  The week coincides with the birthday of James Madison (March 16th).

Initiated and sponsored for years by the American Society of News Editors, this year Sunshine Week is a collaboration between ASNE and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

In the past, journalists have conducted audits of FOI laws, policymakers write opinion pieces, editorial cartoonists contribute works for broad distribution, interest groups sponsor programs, and Congress holds a hearing or two to push bills or take stock of where we are with government transparency.

FOIA Oversight in the House

SGI Coordinator Rick Blum testified about FOIA’s capabilities and constraints at a full meeting of the House Committee on Government and Oversight Reform, as one of several witnesses at “The Freedom of Information Act: Crowd-Sourcing Government Oversight. Joining Blum on the panel were Miriam Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Services, Dan Metcalfe, executive director of the Collaboration on Government Secrecy, Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, and Angela Canterbury, Director of Public Policy at the Project on Government Oversight.

Chairman Darrell Issa framed several issues early and quickly by suggesting that FOIA should expand, but ultimately become obsolete as agencies evolve from a request-based model of releasing information to a world of wide-ranging, affirmative disclosures, as technology makes it increasingly simple for large volumes of information to go online for public access. Issa expressed dismay at the tendency of government actors to have an easy time praising transparency but a harder time practicing it; he also noted that FOIA reform need not be partisan, citing efforts last year to repeal secrecy provisions in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. Ranking member Elijah Cummings added that he had just reintroduced legislation from the previous session of Congress which had passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support, including Issa’s: a package of five reforms called the Transparency and Openness in Government Act (H.R. 1144).

Members of the committee and witnesses wrestled with several persistent issues: How can we harness technology to streamline bureaucracy and maximize the sharing of information? How can we tell which changes in policy and practice contribute to the most improvement within agencies? Are there specific best practices that can be discerned from some agencies and applied at other agencies (actually, OGIS has crafted a six-page “best practices” report, but it seems to be an ongoing process)?

We look forward to continuing this discussion, and others, inspired by Sunshine Week and increased attention from the rich variety of people and offices involved.

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