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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February 9, 2015 12:51 PM

A legislative proposal that had concerned government transparency advocates has been withdrawn by the bill’s sponsor.

Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, pulled House Bill 232 Thursday morning right before it was about to be debated by the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee.

His action effectively kills the legislation, since Friday is the deadline for bills clear the committee in their house of origin. Thursday was the last meeting this week for the House Corporations Committee. Continue>>>
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February 6, 2015 1:14 PM

Government transparency advocates say they are concerned about a newly filed bill that would change Wyoming’s public meetings law.

House Bill 232 would allow public agencies to “take action upon information classified as confidential by law” in executive session.

The state’s current law allows governing bodies to enter into the secret sessions, which are closed from the public, to debate or receive information on a range of specified topics, such as personnel matters or proposed litigation. Continue>>>
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January 21, 2015 12:39 PM

A pledge circulated by advocates of government transparency to garner support for the state’s Freedom of Information Act has yielded additional signatures since it was reissued earlier this month.

None of the latest round of signatures came from New London or Windham counties.

Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman is one of 10 elected officials to add their name to the pledge, which was created by the nonprofit Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, founded in 1955. It asked respondents to vow to support the state’s Freedom of Information Act and to do whatever they could “to require that any proposals to weaken or impair the FOI Act be presented for debate at public hearings before any action is taken on them.” Continue>>>
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January 20, 2015 12:56 PM

IN EARLY December, President Obama announced a series of measures aimed at closing the gap between citizens and law enforcement. One of those measures was a plan to distribute $263 million in funding for agencies to purchase body cameras that can be used during police interactions with citizens.

Immediately, there was discussion among my counterparts in other states about whether video captured by the cameras would be subject to release under state public records laws (in Virginia, it’s called the Freedom of Information Act). On one side is the need for public accountability, on the other side are privacy concerns for victims, witnesses and informants (certainly there are other issues on both sides, but for now, those are the two biggies).
In Seattle, instead of gathering talking heads like myself in a room to hammer out statutes or regulations, the police department there convened a “hackathon” to figure out a technological solution. Continue>>>
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January 19, 2015 4:28 PM

A good government is one that responds to the wishes of the public. But the public cannot know how responsive its government is when much of what government does lies outside public view. Hence the need for transparency, the handmaiden of accountability.

A new coalition, Transparency Virginia, has been formed to monitor and improve openness at the state level. It will focus on the sometimes overlooked mechanics: meeting notices, ensuring that all bills get heard, and the recording of votes in committees and subcommittees.

All three are important; the last element deserves special mention. For years the House of Delegates has shanked important legislation — such as that regarding nonpartisan redistricting — in unrecorded subcommittee votes, leaving the public to wonder which members tried to save it and which plunged in the knife. No wonder voters are cynical. Continue>>>
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December 17, 2014 5:25 PM

The Wichita City Council can decide to increase transparency in regards to spending, or let it remain being spent in secret.

The City of Wichita has three surrogate quasi-governmental agencies that are almost totally taxpayer-funded, specifically Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. Each agency contends it is not a “public agency” as defined in Kansas law, and therefore does not have to fulfill records requests.

These agencies spend considerable sums of tax money. This week the city will consider funding Go Wichita with a budget of $2,356,851 for 2015. That is not all the taxpayer money this agency will spend, as earlier this year the council voted to increase the city’s hotel tax by 2.75 cents per dollar, with the proceeds going to Go Wichita. City documents indicate that tax is estimated to generate $2.3 million per year. Continue>>>
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December 12, 2014 9:13 AM

Government transparency is a favorite — and necessary — topic of the fourth estate. The push and pull for a more open government is constant here in Vermont and across the nation.

On Monday, a victory in this battle was won as the Senate passed The FOIA Improvement Act of 2014, a bill aimed at easing disclosure of records under the Freedom of Information Act. The bill was introduced by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the Senate on Monday that passage of the FOIA Improvement Act, "will help open the government to the more than 300 million Americans it serves." Continue>>>
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December 1, 2014 2:39 PM

The Obama administration is "walking the walk" on government transparency by asking the public to help write a guide for agencies on ways to engage the public.

"This resource reflects the commitment of the government and civic partners to measurably improve participation programs, and is designed using the same inclusive principles that it champions," wrote Corinna Zarek, White House senior adviser for open government, and Justin Herman, SocialGov lead for the General Services Administration, in a blog post announcing the Public Participation Playbook.

The playbook stems from the administration's most recent pledge to give the public a greater say in how the federal government operates. GSA has made a draft of the playbook available for public comment on a digital platform called Madison. It plans to release in January an edited version of the playbook that agencies can use and further refine. Continue>>>
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November 21, 2014 10:47 AM

So this “lame duck” Congress may not be so lame after all – at least when it comes to increasing government transparency.

On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to consider a bipartisan measure that, while modest, would be one of the most significant improvements to the Freedom of Information Act in decades. Sponsored by Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy and Texas Republican John Cornyn, we’re hopeful the committee will send the bill to the full Senate where it has a legitimate chance at passage, even in the politically fraught aftermath of this month's election.

The legislation would take several small but important steps to improve FOIA. Continue>>>
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November 14, 2014 11:48 AM

One of the core values of the American experiment is the idea of transparency.

Citizens have a right to know what their government is up to – how tax dollars are being spent, what public servants do while on the job, and why certain decisions are made that affect our communities.

Unfortunately, this ideal of government transparency is not always put into practice. In our investigations into government shenanigans, the Watchdog.org team has often encountered the harsh wall of bureaucracy. Here are 10 times the government stonewalled requests for information: Continue>>>
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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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December 12, 2013 3:30 PM

Press release from MLRC and NFOIC:

By Amaris Elliott-Engel, MLRC Legal Fellow

NFOIC’s third biennial joint study with the New York-based Media Law Resource Center (MLRC) showed a continuation of trends that are troubling to open government advocates.

Just as similar informal surveys in 2009 and 2011 had, the 2013 Open Government Survey found a substantial decline over the last two to five years in the amount of resources devoted by media organizations to FOIA and open government issues.

Additionally, the survey, based on perceptions of leaders of NFOIC member organizations and members of MLRC’s Defense Counsel Section, suggests there is a greater inclination among government officials for gaming the system than complying with existing disclosure and accountability laws. The study also showed a shared perception among both NFOIC members and the access attorneys that recent legislative changes were more often harmful to transparency and accountability rather than improvements.

Some 153 representatives of the two organizations participated in the 2013 survey. It showed a continuation of a trend reported two years ago in a prior survey of people in the field who see a decrease in legal resources being applied to FOIA and open government issues. This year 46.2 percent of surveyed MLRC attorneys ("media attorneys") said media organizations had decreased those legal resources substantially, while 35.6 percent of NFOIC representatives indicated the same.

In 2011, 23.37 percent of surveyed media attorneys reported that open government lawsuits had decreased substantially, while 25.5 percent of those surveyed from NFOIC reported the same.

Other results and findings of the jointly administered 2013 survey included these:

  • 46.2 percent of the surveyed media attorneys said media organizations had decreased those resources substantially, while 35.6 percent of NFOIC representatives indicated the same.
  • 24.6 percent of media attorneys said such resources had decreased slightly, while 25.4 percent of NFOIC representatives indicated the same.
  • 3.1. percent of media attorneys said the resources had stayed about the same in contrast to the 20.3 percent of NFOIC representatives who said such resources had stayed on the same level.
  • The numbers of respondents in both groups who view that such resources had increased slightly or increased substantially were closer in percentage.

More media attorneys than NFOIC respondents reported that interventions on behalf of media clients on open government issues has decreased:

  • 26.2 percent of media attorneys said such intervention has decreased substantially in the last two to five years, and 27.9 percent said such intervention has decreased slightly, while no NFOIC respondents found a substantial decrease and only 3.6 percent found a slight decrease.
  • The reason for the decrease in such legal action by media organizations is due to lack of funds or resources for litigation, 83.3 percent of media attorneys and 56.9 percent of NFOIC respondents said.
  • Another reason for the decrease is a decline in the kind of reporting that requires an assertive legal posture to access information, 29.3 percent of NFOIC respondents said and 13.3 percent of media attorneys said.
  • Only a small percent from each group said that legal actions by media organizations are not continuing to decrease.

A higher percent of NFOIC members reported seeing an increase in government efforts to comply with open government laws:

  • 10.4 percent of media attorneys said governmental compliance in providing access to citizens and to comply with open government laws had stayed about the same in the last two to five years, while 33.3 percent of NFOIC members had that view.
  • 32.8 percent of media attorneys said such governmental compliance had decreased slightly, but 20 percent of NFOIC representatives saw a slight decrease.
  • Those freedom of information advocates and media attorneys who said that such efforts had stayed about the same were closer in percentage: 34.3 percent of media attorneys and 31.7 percent of NFOIC members said compliance efforts had stayed on an even keel.

Media attorneys and NFOIC attorneys were also surveyed on which types of government agencies are the most difficult for private citizens and journalists to get information from:

  • Municipal government: 47.5 percent of media attorneys and 38.6 percent of freedom of information professionals said municipal government is the most difficult to obtain information from.
  • County government: 27.9 percent of media attorneys and 22.8 percent of freedom of information professionals said county government is the most difficult to obtain information from.
  • State government: 31.1 percent of media attorneys and 29.8 percent of freedom of information professionals said state government is the most difficult to obtain information from.
  • Federal government: 29.5 percent of media attorneys and 12.3 percent of freedom of information professionals said federal government is the most difficult to obtain information from.
  • Quasi-public governmental bodies: 24.6 percent of media attorneys and 45.6 percent of freedom of information professionals said quasi-public governmental bodies are the most difficult to obtain information from.
  • Public universities: 29.5 percent of media attorneys and 43.9 percent of freedom of information professionals said public universities are the most difficult to obtain information from.
  • Police departments: 45.9 percent of media attorneys and 57.9 percent of freedom of information professionals said police departments are the most difficult to obtain information from.
  • Local school boards: 21.3 percent of media attorneys and 49.1 percent of freedom of information professionals said local school boards are the most difficult to obtain information from.

Media attorneys and NFOIC members were on the same page that state government agencies tend to the most transparent:

  • 53.1 percent of media attorneys said state-government agencies were the most transparent, while 57.8 percent of NFOIC respondents reported the same.
  • Municipal-government entities are the most transparent and cooperative, according to 30.6 percent of media attorneys and 44.4 percent of NFOIC respondents.
  • County governments are the most transparent according to 20.4 percent of media attorneys and 35.6 percent of NFOIC members.
  • The federal government is the most transparent governmental agency, according to 22.4 percent of media attorneys and 17.8 percent of NFOIC respondents.
  • Police departments are the most transparent governmental agencies, according to only 8.2 percent of media attorneys and 20 percent of NFOIC respondents.
  • Local school boards are the most transparent governmental agencies, according to only 4.1 percent of media attorneys and 11.1 percent of NFOIC respondents.
  • Public universities are the most transparent governmental agencies, according to only 8.2 percent of media attorneys and 8.9 percent of NFOIC respondents.
  • Finally, quasi-governmental bodies were reported to be the most transparent by only 4 percent of attorneys and by no NFOIC members.

Both media attorneys and freedom of information professionals reported at a high rate that "emerging forms of public data and proactive disclosures" have not made their services and resources less needed over the last two to five years:

  • 20 percent of media attorneys said their services are much more needed with the rise of public data and proactive disclosure by governmental entities, while 33.9 percent of NFOIC correspondents indicated the same.
  • 18.3 percent of media attorneys said their services are slightly more needed, while 21.4 percent of NFOIC respondents indicated the same.
  • Fifty percent of media attorneys said there was no change, while 41.1 percent of NFOIC respondents indicated the same.

More NFOIC respondents than media attorneys reported that enforcement mechanisms for noncompliance by governmental officials with open government rules were ineffective:

  • 33.9 percent of NFOIC respondents said enforcement measures were not effective at all, while 16.4 percent of media attorneys reported the same thing.
  • 32.2 percent of NFOIC members said enforcement measures were somewhat effective, while 42.6 percent of media attorneys reported the same thing.
  • The number of media attorney and NFOIC respondents who said enforcement measures were somewhat ineffective was very close with 21.3 percent of media attorneys reporting that and 22.0 percent of NFOIC correspondents reporting that.
Other highlights of the survey include:
  • The majority of media attorneys and NFOIC respondents said that "disingenuous rationalization" was the most common reason why government officials deny access to information. Interpretations of statutory language and "inappropriate game-playing" were the next most common reasons for governmental officials to deny access to information, those surveyed reported.
  • The media attorneys and NFOIC members agreed that the three most common obstacles presented by the government in accessing information are: the citation of invalid exceptions, lack of response or delayed responses, and unreasonable fees.
  • Many more media attorneys than NFOIC respondents said the changing landscape of government access has affected the quality of news coverage in their area: 49.2 percent of media attorneys compared to 25.0 percent of NFOIC members.

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