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 19, 2014 1:40 PM

From President Obama’s first day in office, he has established himself as the first open data president. On day one, he issued a memorandum to create an “unprecedented level of openness in government” and affirmed that information collected and used by the federal government is a national asset. In the nearly six years Obama has been in office, he has taken a series of executive actions to further the ideal of open government through data, and there is still much to be done. With the presidential election season just around the corner, it remains to be seen if the progress made over the past few years will continue in future administrations, or if President Obama will be the last open data president.

President Obama’s initial memorandum served as the framework for the Administration’s Open Government Directive launched in December 2009, which requires federal agencies to adhere to three main tenets: publish government information online, improve the quality of government information, and create and institutionalize a culture of open government. The directive established specific goals and milestones for making high-quality government data accessible to the public. For example, in the first 45 days after the directive was created, agencies were required to identify and publish three previously unavailable, high-value data sets via Data.gov, which was launched in May 2009 by the Federal Chief Information Officer. Importantly, many of the requirements of the directive are ongoing processes, such as a requirement for agencies to update and publish an Open Government Plan every two years, ensuring that the commitment to open data becomes ingrained in government agency culture.

Recognizing that simply publishing government data online was not sufficient for making the data valuable, President Obama issued an executive order in May 2013 which required government data to be published in an open and machine readable format by default. Publishing machine readable data not only helps government agencies fulfill their Open Government Directive requirements more completely, but it also allows the data to be more easily searched and analyzed by the public. With open license to use and reuse this data, the range of organizations that can access, analyze, share, and derive value from this data broadens dramatically. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released its Open Data Policy in conjunction with this executive order to establish good data management practices throughout the data lifecycle, such as enhancing information safeguards and clarifying information management responsibilities. Continue>>>
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November 5, 2014 11:54 AM

The Freedom of Information Act is supposed to make it easier for journalists and ordinary Americans to obtain documents and other information about how the federal government conducts its business. As such, it is one of the bedrocks of our democracy. “It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government,” boasts FOIA.gov, a website dedicated to the law.

Unfortunately, as has been woefully apparent for years, the law is not particularly user-friendly, and instead of making information more accessible, its application has resulted too often in information that should be made public becoming nearly impossible to obtain. In a May 2010 column for The New York Times, I wrote about my own difficulties in obtaining public documents from the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Reserve.

I also recounted President Obama’s determination, on his first full day in office, to change FOIA’s bad reputation by issuing an executive order to make the law easier to use by encouraging bureaucrats to err on the side of releasing information. His optimism was palpable. Continue>>>
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August 25, 2014 8:24 AM

Judicial Watch announced Thursday that is has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security to uncover reports of sexual misconduct by airport screeners.

The legal action is connected to a March FOIA request that asked DHS for information about passenger complaints about sexual harassment. While Judicial Watch agreed to narrow its request for information in March, TSA did not produce any documents at all, “or respond in any other substantive way as required by law.”

The government watchdog group said the issue of sexual misconduct by TSA came to light in January, when a Colorado woman filed a complaint that a frisking she received was sexual assault. Judicial Watch cited a press report in which Jamelyn Steenhoek was quoted as saying the agent touched her in place she’s “not comfortable being touched in.” Continue>>>
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August 25, 2014 8:21 AM

President Barack Obama’s White House has interfered with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests over the release of communications with a dozen federal agencies, according to a lawsuit filed on Monday by Cause of Action, a government watchdog organization.

Cause of Action has sued ten cabinet agencies — including the Departments of Justice, Treasury, and Health and Human Services — the Internal Revenue Service, and the White House Office of Management and Budget for allowing the White House to influence the FOIA process and delay response to document requests.

“Accountable and transparent government does not involve instructing agencies to send politically sensitive records to the White House for review,” said Dan Epstein, executive director of Cause of Action, in a press release announcing the lawsuit. “The bureaucracy has violated the law by stonewalling the public’s access to documents for political reasons.” Continue>>>
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March 12, 2013 1:06 PM

From Naples News:

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government, led by the Pentagon and CIA, censored files that the public requested last year under the Freedom of Information Act more often than at any time since President Barack Obama took office, according to a new analysis by The Associated Press. The government frequently cited national security as the reason.

Overall, the Obama administration last year answered its highest number of requests so far for copies of government documents, emails, photographs and more, and it slightly reduced its backlog of requests from previous years. But it more often cited legal provisions allowing the government to keep records or parts of its records secret, especially a rule intended to protect national security.



February 12, 2013 11:34 AM

From ProPublica:

After eight years of tightened access to government records under the Bush administration, open-government advocates were hopeful when Barack Obama promised greater transparency.

 
Four years later, did the president keep his promise?
 
"It's a mixed bag," said Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a consortium of right-to-know groups. "I think they've made progress, but a whole lot more remains to be done."

For more along these lines, please see Second term open government agenda: Achieving greater transparency.

 

 

February 1, 2013 11:09 AM

The National Freedom of Information Coalition and a host of open government groups offered their support of a message to President Obama in an op-ed written by OpenTheGovernment.org’s executive director Patrice McDermott and published January 31 in The Hill.

"The administration has made progress toward proactively releasing more information online, including on such sites as data.gov, recovery.gov and USAspending.gov," the op-ed states. "But more yet can be done toward achieving transparency."

It criticized the administration for excessive secrecy “under the guise of national security” and called for new measures and policies to protect leakers and so-called “whistleblowers” who expose government waste, fraud and abuse, noting that whistleblowers “often make our government more effective and accountable,” and asserted that they should be protected from punitive job actions and prosecutions.

It also chided the President for using so-called signing statements that offer “the same type of vexing rationalizations” he denounced as a U.S. senator and as a candidate for president.

A few of the suggestions:

  • A deadline for agencies to update Freedom of Information Act regulations, with a focus on making it easier to obtain information.
  • Agencies should be pushed to join the multiagency shared service, FOIAonline. 
  • FOIA needs to become a vehicle of last resort, not the first, by requiring federal agencies to post information that helps the public better hold them accountable.
  • A plan is needed to increase data quality on USAspending.gov, and to make it possible for other databases, such as those about tax compliance.
  • New tools need to be developed to allow recipients of federal funds to create electronic reports that can be used to show how those funds flow.
  • The president sets up the PIDB-recommended White House-led Security Classification Steering Committee.
  • Make it clear to government managers and supervisors that there is a zero-tolerance policy for suppression and retaliation.
  • An additional directive to criminal justice leaders discouraging overreaching prosecutions and prosecutorial threats also would be appropriate.
  • The limits of each branch’s powers and full transparency in the exercise of government are the best tools for openness and accountability.

More from Patrice McDermott of OpenTheGovernment.org via The Hill.

 

December 5, 2012 4:04 PM

From USNews:

When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he promised a new level of transparency in government, issuing the Open Government Directive for greater government accountability and calling on agencies to be more cooperative in responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
 
But four years later, transparency watchdogs — and journalists — aren't impressed.
 
[...]
 
"The plumbing is stopped up," said Daniel Schuman, the policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation's Advisory Committee on Transparency. "Who do we need to call to unstop it?"

 

November 28, 2012 5:34 PM

From The Associated Press:

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama signed legislation Tuesday that affords greater protection to federal employees who expose fraud, waste and abuse in government operations.

Capping a 13-year effort by supporters of whistle-blower rights, the new law closes loopholes created by court rulings, which removed protections for federal whistle-blowers. One loophole specified that whistle-blowers were only protected when they were the first to report misconduct.

[...]

The whistle-blower law makes it easier to punish supervisors who try to retaliate against the government workers.

For more relevant stories, see Advocates laud President Obama’s signing of federal whistleblower reforms from Make It Safe Campaign & Coalition:

President Obama signed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA, S. 743) into law today, marking the finale of a more than decade-long campaign by the Make It Safe Coalition to restore and modernize federal whistleblower protections. The President’s unwavering support of the WPEA, paired with Congress’ sweeping endorsement by unanimous consent, demonstrates the strong mandate for a new day of accountability in the federal government. These reforms expand protections for federal employees who disclose wrongdoing and protect the public trust.

Whistleblower advocates from organizations with diverse interests and ideologies who together waged a historic campaign for this landmark government accountability reform are enthusiastic about this victory for whistleblowers and taxpayers: ...

April 2, 2012 2:10 PM

From Glenn Greenwald at Salon:

Note that secrecy abuses, during the Bush years, weren’t spoken of as a mere side issue or bad policy option, but rather as a fundamental threat to democracy itself. That’s certainly how I constantly wrote of secrecy abuses during the Bush years: secrecy is the linchpin of abuse of power, and transparency is the paramount tool against it.

As Obama himself put it the day after he was inaugurated: “A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.”

March 1, 2012 2:14 PM

From The FOIA Project:

When the Obama administration came to office in January 2009, it promised openness and transparency in government. On his first full day in office, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum concerning his administration’s beliefs on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), ordering federal officials to err on the side of openness.

This report considers whether or not a key component of that March 2009 directive which set forth new “defensive standards” for FOIA litigation has been obeyed. Henceforth, the AG’s memorandum stated, the Department of Justice would “defend a denial of a FOIA request only if (1) the agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by one of the statutory exemptions, or (2) disclosure is prohibited by law.

January 31, 2012 4:44 PM

From FAS Project on Government Secrecy:

More than two years ago, President Obama set a December 31, 2013 deadline for completing the declassification processing of a backlog of more than 400 million pages of classified historical records that were over 25 years old.  But judging from the limited progress to date, it now seems highly unlikely that the President’s directive will be fulfilled.

As of December 2011, following two years of operation, the National Declassification Center had completed the processing of only 26.6 million pages of the 400 million page backlog, according to the latest NDC semi-annual report.  If the Center increased productivity by a factor of ten, that would still be insufficient to achieve its goal.

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