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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April 1, 2015 12:58 PM

The Freedom of Information Act is one of the crown jewels of the modern American republic. The law, which requires public access to most government documents and communications, has made it significantly easier for Americans and the journalists who inform them to hold government officials accountable.

In a day and age when government gets ever-bigger, FOIA protects Americans from being ruled in secret. Or at least, it does so when officials actually follow the law — which, unfortunately, they often do not.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's use of private email to conduct State Department business represents just one common method of frustrating the fulfillment of lawful FOIA requests. Another is for the government to charge outrageously high fees for disclosing documents that belong to the public. Continue>>>
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March 31, 2015 11:49 AM

The failure to share information with the public after a fatal electrical fire in a Metro tunnel dominated discussion at the annual D.C. Open Government Summit March 17.

Journalists, civic activists and D.C. government officials traded complaints and suggestions to make local government and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority more transparent. The Open Government Coalition sponsored the Sunshine Week event at the National Press Club.

“We all know that there are problems,” said Denise Rucker Krepp, an advisory neighborhood commissioner from Capitol Hill. “WMATA doesn't want this to be exposed; WMATA wants to hide.” Continue>>>
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March 29, 2015 10:40 PM

The state Attorney General's office is welcoming the public for an educational forum on Open Meeting Law in Hanover on Wednesday, April 1. 

The meeting is one way the office aims to help governing bodies as well as members of the public to better understand and comply with the requirements of the Open Meeting Law, according to a news release. State, local, regional, and county public bodies are required to comply with the Open Meeting Law.

Since taking over responsibility for enforcement of the Open Meeting Law at all levels of government in July 2010, the Attorney General's Division of Open Government has responded to more than 10,300 telephone and email inquiries from members of public bodies, municipal counsel, and the public, the release said. Continue>>>
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March 23, 2015 12:04 PM

On his first day in office in 2009, President Obama promised that transparency would be one of the "touchstones of this presidency."

Advocates for open government were ecstatic at the promise of less secrecy and the president's directive to all government agencies that "in the face of doubt, openness prevails."

THE WHITE HOUSE: We're committed to openness. Continue>>>
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March 23, 2015 10:47 AM

Some recent examples of New York journalists facing challenges to efforts to shine light on the working of local government:

ROCHESTER DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE

The newspaper is involved in two lawsuits challenging authorities' denial of requests for information under the state Freedom of Information Law. Continue>>>
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March 19, 2015 9:35 PM

On his first day in the White House six years ago, President Obama promised that his administration would “usher in a new era of open government,” making it easier than ever to obtain information from federal agencies.

That is not how it has turned out at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

The agency was woefully unprepared when a flood of immigrants began requesting their records as Obama signaled his intent to loosen the nation’s immigration policies. As a necessary first step in the process of applying for residency, immigrants often must request their own immigration files and enforcement records from CBP and other agencies. Continue>>>
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March 17, 2015 1:07 PM

Newspapers were once the dominant force in dislodging documents and other records from reluctant federal government agencies, but a new crop of media players, advocacy groups and corporate interests now drive the release of information.

The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 was first envisioned as a tool for traditional media to seek documents, data and information they deemed important to the public's interest. It also was meant to allow ordinary Americans to seek information from the federal government about themselves.

Nearly a half-century later, news organizations continue to pepper federal agencies with written and electronic requests for records and other information under FOIA, a review of agency logs shows, though they are cash-strapped and less likely to press their claims in court. Meanwhile, over the past decade there's been a surge of requests from bloggers, advocacy groups, corporate lawyers, researchers and even foreign nationals tapping the promise of open records. Continue>>>
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March 17, 2015 12:55 PM

It was a simple request of a government agency.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy wanted 21/2 months' of price data collected by the state Liquor Control Commission.

The information was available and would fit on a flash drive, Michael LaFaive, the center's director of the Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative was told, if he had one on hand. He didn't. Continue>>>
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March 16, 2015 12:06 PM

The annual nationwide Sunshine Week is celebrated this year from March 15 - 21. USA newspapers publish stories about public records and the difficulty in obtaining some of them. “Public records” are generally defined as records regardless of their physical form (so email would be included) made or received in connection with the transaction of official business by any government agency.

This week, newspapers judge government agencies on their compliance with public records laws. They will publish their findings from experiments they have done, such as submitting the identical request for records to various agencies and evaluating the response from each.

Public records have an impact on a reporter’s paycheck because they form the backbone of many stories that newspapers sell. If you peruse any newspaper article, at least part of the article will probably be from a public record. Therefore, public records are very important to reporters. That’s the reason reporters cozy up to the PIOs (public information officers) at government agencies. Continue>>>
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March 16, 2015 11:56 AM

The Justice Department's Office of Information Policy is introducing a new suite of tools to train feds on Freedom of Information Act procedures. The new training is suitable for all federal employees, not just FOIA officials.

The tools — to be released later this week — will include a brief video introduction to FOIA by OIP Director Melanie Ann Pustay; separate online training modules for FOIA-centric positions and general employees; and a quick-reference infographic targeted to new federal employees.

OIP offers several training seminars each year, but they often focus on agency FOIA professionals, according to a post on justice.gov announcing the new training initiative. "OIP's new collection of training tools are designed to help ensure that these important resources are available for all federal employees — from the senior executive, to the everyday employee whose records might become subject to FOIA, to the FOIA professionals responsible for processing records for disclosure." Continue>>>
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March 12, 2015 11:06 PM

by Eric Newton

Each spring for 10 years now, a vast media conspiracy has rolled across the hills and plains of this nation. Journalists of every stripe – cartoonists to commentators to hard news reporters – have been in on it. And not just journalists, but politicians, educators and librarians, as well as members of nonprofits and civic groups.

What’s the conspiracy? It’s called Sunshine Week, and it is built around the birthday of James Madison, the father of the Bill of Rights. This year, the week is March 15-21.

The agenda: to brazenly promote your right to know. Open government, we argue, only works when public information flows freely. As Madison himself explained nearly two centuries ago: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, where I work, launched and have helped sustain Sunshine Week. At the start, in a speech to roughly 100 open-government advocates, I said the foundation could support them only if they could find a way to work together. They did. 

After a decade, can we say that Sunshine Week is working? Yes. And no.

Search Google and you’ll see hits tripling over the years. That’s the work of the American Society of News Editors. Millions of people read stories about open government. New openness laws pass. Cities, states and the feds issue proclamations. This year’s California bill officially recognizes Sunshine Week as “a celebration of the public’s commitment to openness and an exploration of what open government means in a technology-enhanced future.”

Experts like Rick Blum of the Sunshine in Government Initiative testify about how freedom of information saves lives, of how it tells us, for example, when our Marines have been issued body armor with life-threatening flaws. Today, says Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, we have more access than ever to official information about topics like intelligence spending and the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Overall, access seem much better than in the day after the 9-11 attacks, when public documents vanished from websites like so many fireflies blinking out.

Unfortunately, examples also abound of closed government, of public information held hostage. This week, major news organizations are reporting that too many government agencies are trying to block the public’s access to its own information by charging exorbitant fees. Or turning our information over to businesses that are not transparent. Or muddying up freedom with restrictions that display an ignorance of what freedom really means.

Secrecy is a bipartisan proposition. Hillary Clinton’s hidden emails? George W. Bush did the same kind of thing. All over Washington, documents are stamped “classified” for no good reason. Governments big and small are affected. Virginia, by not paying attention to just one of its own data files (according to Waldo Jaquith of U.S. Open Data) was leaving millions of dollars in revenue uncollected. In Maryland, Fredrick County councilman Kirby Delauter went so far as to threatened to sue if his name was printed in the newspaper.

So the battle continues. Always there have been those who would hide the truth and seek personal advantage in the darkness. We can’t stop fighting for sunshine because they won’t stop fighting against it.

In the end, the American experiment will fail unless the people who run this country – us – know nearly as much as the people who work for us – our employees, the government.

But is sunshine by itself enough? Madison said, we must “arm ourselves with knowledge.” We can’t just know that our government disregards its own Freedom of Information laws. We have to do something about it.

This year, during Sunshine Week, consider joining us at sunshine events in your community or online. Yours are the laws being broken. Yours is the information being stolen. Yours are the truths being bludgeoned. In the long run, your participation is the only thing that really matters. If you see public information go into hiding, complain, complain, complain. It’s your right.

Eric Newton is senior adviser to the president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami, Florida. 

(NOTE: Be sure to visit NFOIC's Sunshine Week 2015 web page and learn more about what's planned by the national coalition and the more than 40 state and regional affiliate members. 

March 12, 2015 12:23 PM

At Thursday’s funeral in Columbia, it was noted that most South Carolinians did not know John Shurr. But they know a lot more about their state and local governments because of him.

Shurr and other journalists are not in the business of making news, but they are on the front line of what is often a fight to gather the news. No one fought the fight with better results over a longer period in South Carolina than Shurr, who spent 20 years as leader of The Associated Press in South Carolina, a time during which he championed open government with actions to back up his words.

At head of the South Carolina Press Association’s committee devoted to freedom of information, Shurr led the push in the 1980s for changes in the state’s Freedom of Information Act that made the law a model nationally. That followed him putting The AP out front in lawsuits that helped bring down University of South Carolina President James Holderman. Continue>>>
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