FOI Advocate Blog

The NFOIC open government blog is a compendium of original concepts and analysis as well as ideas, edited excerpts and materials from a variety of sources. When the information comes from another source, we will attribute it and provide a link. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited; we will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

For Advocate posts prior to July, 2011, visit http://foiadvocate.blogspot.com/.
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November 13, 2014 2:50 PM

Thanks to whistleblowers like Chelsea Elizabeth Manning and Edward Snowden, we are learning to ask what our government knows like informed citizens in a democratic republic should. Manning and Snowden sacrificed their freedom to increase government transparency.

You can uncover a lot of information without the possible risks of whistleblowing using the freedom of information act — FOIA. The FOIA allows people to formally ask the government questions and receive documents that answer those questions.

Staying well informed is a great way to protect your freedom. Continue>>>
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October 8, 2014 1:03 PM

Jason Grumet argued in ìGovernment wilting from the sunshineî [Washington Forum, Oct. 2] that transparency measures such as open meetings and records laws have a 'dark side,' one that is presumably responsible for the 77 percent of Americans who do not trust their government most of the time. Perhaps the fact that Congress has exempted itself from the Freedom of Information Act and has no requirements to hold all meetings in public might contribute to the mistrust that troubles Mr. Grumet.

A cop on the beat has little expectation of privacy when doing his job. A senator or a subcommittee cutting a deal with a special interest shouldn't either. Sadly, we hold Congress to a much lower standard of openness while executive-branch agencies stonewall requests for information. Blame for suspicion of and dissatisfaction with Congress and the executive branch rests entirely at the feet of our elected officials, who, by restricting access to information, do much to prove themselves unworthy of trust. Continue>>>
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July 14, 2014 10:19 AM
Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont and John Cornyn of Texas, leaders of the Judiciary Committee, have long shown an admirable commitment to open government, and their recent bill to amend the Freedom of Information Act is winning a ton of praise. Some of its reforms make sense, but, unfortunately, its key provision is a horrible idea. By reducing the protection now given to deliberations within the executive branch, it would have a chilling effect on those discussions.
 
To see the problem, suppose that officials at the State and Homeland Security departments are vigorously discussing a new approach to immigration reform before important decisions are made. If the process is working well, officials will exchange a lot of views and disagree with one another in significant ways. Assistant secretaries at State might argue energetically for an idea that the secretary ultimately rejects. The deputy secretary of Homeland Security might object to a position that both departments endorse in the end.
 
Under the Freedom of Information Act, such internal discussions usually need not be disclosed. Like senators and U.S. Supreme Court justices, officials in the executive branch are allowed to have confidential conversations as they work toward their decisions. Continue>>>
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amendment, FOIA, legislation
July 14, 2014 10:18 AM

Regulating is an inherently legislative exercise, in that it entails the promulgation of rules that control private behavior. Indeed, most policy now is rendered via regulation, thanks to the geometric growth of the executive branch during the post-war years.*

However, unlike legislators in congress, executive agency bureaucrats are unaccountable to the electorate. As a result, there’s a danger that executive agencies are effectuating policy absent a popular mandate and away from the public eye.

In theory, the hazard of unaccountable policy-making could be mitigated largely by the 1966 Freedom of Information Act, which enables any person to request, without explanation or justification, access to existing, identifiable, and unpublished executive branch agency records.

In practice, however, federal agencies routinely circumvent information requests, and the censors’ primary tool for achieving opacity is a statutory exemption from disclosing “deliberative process.” Colloquially, it’s known as the “b(5)” exemption, after its statutory provision (5 U.S.C. §552(b)(5)); among information seekers, it’s known as the “withhold it because you want to” exemption. Continue>>>
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May 12, 2014 9:48 AM

For decades Vermont has been at the bottom of the list of states for the public’s right to know the truth about government operations, records and meetings.

Two years ago, with the strong support of Gov. Peter Shumlin, Secretary of State Jim Condos and others, the Legislature passed a new public records law that improved public access to government documents. Since then, the state has seen steady improvements in its rankings for open government.

The time has come to make similar improvements in the second area of government operations — the public’s right to know what local and state boards are doing when they meet, sometimes improperly behind closed doors. A bill, H.497, that has now passed the House and Senate tries to address open meetings; but it also contains some fatal flaws. Continue>>>
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FOIA, transparency, Vermont
May 12, 2014 9:47 AM

Short of rewriting the Virginia Constitution, there is no better way to recast the relationship between citizens and state government than overhauling the Freedom of Information Act. The law enables oversight of officials who operate on the people's behalf, spends public money and should be subject to scrutiny.

Last month, officials began a thorough review of the legislation, looking for ways to streamline it and improve how it functions for the public. We applaud the commitment to this long-overdue effort but we cannot help but be disappointed in its backwards approach, which will review the law as it exists rather than starting with a clean slate.

When the Founding Fathers crafted the Constitution, they constructed a document which limited the size of government. This perspective intended to reserve all additional rights to the states and citizens, narrowing the federal scope to only specifically enumerated powers. Continue>>>
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May 8, 2014 7:08 AM

The National Archives and Records Administration will create a committee to improve the way the government process Freedom of Information Act request, a May 5 Federal Register notice says.

"NARA has determined that the creation of the FOIA Advisory Committee is in the public interest due to the expertise and valuable advice the Committee members will provide on issues related to improving the administration of FOIA," the notice says.

The notice doesn't go into detail about the makeup of the committee or what specific issues it will take on, but it does say NARA will share with agencies and the public the committee's recommendations on issues related to FOIA. Continue>>>
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May 4, 2014 9:53 PM

The law allowing residents and business to request public records may be dubbed the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, but as municipalities are seeing more and more requests come in each year, officials say the cost to comply with the law is anything but free.

A Daily Herald survey of 55 municipalities showed that the number of Freedom of Information Act requests received has increased in nearly all towns over the past few years that officials have been tracking the numbers. Between 2011 and 2013, 17 suburbs saw an increase of more than 25 percent. Towns including Aurora, Hampshire, Des Plaines and Prospect Heights saw the number of requests increase by more than 50 percent.

Municipal clerks and lawyers said that responding to these requests takes staff time and money away from other responsibilities to the point of being a burden, but First Amendment experts say it is worth the cost to increase transparency of government. Continue>>>
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April 14, 2014 8:10 AM

A resolution has been reached in the case of an Iron County Medical Care Facility (ICMCF) resident who filed a civil lawsuit against the facility, alleging that it had not lawfully complied with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Enacted federally in 1966, FOIA allows citizens to obtain access to public records with some exceptions. The state of Michigan passed its own version of FOIA in 1976.

ICMCF's attorney Kenneth Lane had claimed that resident Patrick Ward's prolific FOIA requests to the facility, which amounted to about one per day, were "overly broad" and "overly burdensome." As a result, he advised ICMCF to discontinue responding to the requests. Continue>>>
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FOIA, Montana
April 8, 2014 12:04 PM

A report published by the nonprofit Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch), has ranked 15 agencies on how well they are implementing the Freedom of Information Act, and it gave seven of them failing grades.

The report rated agencies on: how quickly they responded to requests, how quickly it granted requests, and how well their appeals process worked; the effectiveness of agency policy in terms of communication, the review process, and level of disclosure of records; and, website design in terms of facilitating information flow, online services and availability of maintained reading rooms.

The National Archives and Records Administration was among those receiving an F – perhaps not surprising considering its relatively heavy FOIA burden. Also receiving F's: the EEOC, and the Departments of Labor, Veterans Affairs, Defense, Homeland Security, and State. Top performers were... Continue>>>
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March 31, 2014 9:48 AM

Black columns run vertically down 700 pages, devoid of any information about the federal workers who spent thousands of hours doing union work while on the government payroll.

This is what the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

In the name of protecting employees’ privacy, USDA withheld their names, duty stations, job titles, pay grades and salaries. It even deleted names of the unions benefiting from the hours spent by these USDA workers who continued to draw full pay and benefits, courtesy of the taxpayers. Continue>>>
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epa, FOIA
March 28, 2014 9:44 AM

Two weeks ago, the city of Ann Arbor took a deliberate step to remove a document that had been publicly available on its website for nearly half a decade. Why?

Allegedly, that document contains information that – if it were disclosed – would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of someone’s privacy. Never mind the fact that the context of the document itself makes clear that the information in question is clearly and deliberately intended to be publicly available.

To erase any possible doubt about that, I resorted to an advanced investigative technique: I asked the guy. And it turns out that current Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board member John Splitt had been content to have jsplitt@comcast.net publicly disclosed as his email contact information in the document – the same as elsewhere on the Internet. Continue>>>
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Attorneys, FOIA, Michigan
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