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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October 13, 2014 1:51 PM

It's election season, and many candidates are on a "listening campaign" and kissing babies all over in the run-up to voting day in November (and let's not forget early voting). Although not a "sexy" topic, and although the operations of a procurement department may not be a hot talking point during in a follow-up to a stump speech, how your school district, local government or state agencies operate reflects the policies of the politicians who were elected to run those agencies. My colleague Erica Harrison and I have worked with federal, state and local government agencies, and the sophistication and transparency vary widely among and within all levels of government. Whether the agencies are open and transparent, or secretive and closed, goes a long way in showing whether you elected someone representing the people or special interests.

Procurement departments are responsible for seeking out, selecting and purchasing large quantities of goods and services for public consumption. Companies of various sizes submit bids on public contract opportunities by offering competitive prices, unique qualities or innovative approaches to meeting a department's needs. The estimated values of these procurements (e.g., fiber optic equipment, teacher professional development and student textbooks, restaurants in government buildings) can range from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars and are likely procured through some public proposal process--a process that, obviously, requires taxpayer dollars to administer and could put taxpayer dollars at risk if not done properly. The best procurement departments have protocols for public contracting to ensure that businesses offering their goods or services can find opportunities, fully participate in the request for proposal processes and be heard in cases of dispute. Here is a short and high-level accountability checklist to arm you with questions to see if your local or state procurement departments are high-functioning and poised to make the most of taxpayer dollars.

1. Is information about the procurement department easily accessible? Continue>>>
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October 6, 2014 10:49 AM

Hang around the nation's capital long enough and inevitably even the most grizzled newsroom veteran reads something so utterly wrong that he is left speechless.

Such a moment arrived for this ink-stained wretch Thursday while reading a Washington Post op-ed by Bipartisan Policy Center President Jason Grumet. His piece included this declaration about post-Watergate reforms designed to bring government out from behind closed doors:

"But while openness is indeed key to a functioning democracy, there is a dark side to sunlight. Deliberation, collaboration and compromise rarely flourish in front of TV cameras or when monitored by special interests.

Most government staff now operate under the principle of 'don't write that down' and avoid raising concerns and challenging questions altogether for fear that they will be publicly revealed to embarrassing effect. Continue>>>
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September 23, 2014 8:51 AM

The more transparent and open governments can be, the better for everyone. To most people, transparency has to do with disclosure. Providing information about an issue, event, project, policy, program etc. and then providing a way for people to find and view that information.

Typically, that would suffice. However, when the term is applied in our system of government that particular definition does not go far enough to meet the publicís (expected) definition of transparency. In a democratic government, transparency should be defined as disclosure and discussion.

Transparency means helping the public understand how and why decisions that influence them are made. It means being accountable to the taxpayer. It's much easier to issue edicts with little or no explanation, give canned responses (we appreciate your input..), and clock out at the end of the day without a care because you have the power and no one is allowed to question you. Continue>>>
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September 8, 2014 8:09 AM

Last week I noted this story about a judge rejecting government arguments to withhold documents on the Treasury Department's relationship with mortgage giants Fannie and Freddie. FOIA expert Harry Hammitt writes in: "The case they cite to was in the Federal Circuit that doesn’t hear FOIA cases at all, but occasionally deals with some related issue. I read this to mean the court said Fannie Mae’s deliberative process claim wasn’t appropriate under the circumstances, not that the records definitely were not privileged." Hammitt, by the way, writes Access Reports, an in-depth and authoritative publication on freedom of information and privacy law.

Intercepted: The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald's aggressive new outlet, FOIA'd emails between the CIA public affairs office and reporters. The resulting story accuses Los Angeles Times national security reporter Ken Dilanian of being a patsy for the CIA. I won't wade into the thorny ethical issues the story raises, except to say that this is your regular reminder that nearly everything you write in emails to federal agencies can be FOIA'd. Choose wisely. What is more interesting for our purposes, however, is what the CIA redacted from the emails. From The Intercept:

"It’s impossible to know precisely how the CIA flacks responded to reporters’ queries, because the emails show only one side of the conversations. The CIA redacted virtually all of the press handlers’ replies other than meager comments that were made explicitly on the record, citing the CIA Act of 1949, which exempts the agency from having to disclose "intelligence sources and methods" or "the organization, functions, names, official titles, salaries, or numbers of personnel employed by the Agency." The contents of off-the-record or background emails from CIA press handlers clearly don’t disclose names, titles, or salaries (which can easily be redacted anyway); they may disclose sources and methods, depending on whether you view manipulation of American reporters as an intelligence method. (The Intercept is appealing the redactions.)" Continue>>>
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September 5, 2014 8:50 AM

NEWS RELEASE

September 5, 2014
For immediate release
Contact: Hyde Post, President, NFOIC
hyde.post@gmail.com· 404.216.2661 or 573.882.4856

State Open Government Activist is 2014 FOI Hall of Famer

      Well known for his public advocacy and a frequent panelist and speaker throughout New Jersey, John Paff this year becomes the 15th inductee into the State Open Government Freedom of Information Hall of Fame.Known as the “Heroes of the Fifty States,” the joint initiative of the National Freedom of Information Coalition(NFOIC) and the Society of Professional Journalistsrecognizes the recipient’s“long and steady effort to preserve and protect the free flow of information about state and local government that is vital to the public in a democracy.”  Formal induction takes place on October 24 at the 2014 NFOIC Freedom of Information Summitin St. Petersburg, Florida.

       Paff has been dubbed “New Jersey’s busiest open government activist” by reporter Colleen O’Dea, who featured him this February in her New Jersey Spotlight article “Profile: The Man Who Makes Sure Government Works – Right Out in the Open.”

       Paff’s interest in government transparency began in 2002 shortly after the New Jersey Open Public Records Act was passed. Since then, he has taken a lead role in the work of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project and has served as Project Chairman since 2003.  He has also served for the past five years on the board of trustees for the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, a non-profit organization devoted to improving compliance with the state’s Open Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act. Paff is also is a gifted writer and blogs about noteworthy issues at NJ Open Government Notes.

      Having earned a reputation as a government watchdog, Paff typically juggles five public records requests at any one time. He has filed and won numerous lawsuits against non-compliant public agencies and, in doing so, has made a significant contribution to the body of case law giving teeth to the statutes. “The award judges had a wealth of riches this year in choosing its ‘hero,’ but John Paff stood above the crowd,” said Sarah Nordgren, Director of Content Development for the Associated Pressand one of the NFOIC judges who reviewed the nominees. “John is tireless not only in his support of open government, but also in imparting the deep knowledge he has to others, so that they, too, can work to ensure transparency.”

      NFOIC’s president, Hyde Post said “John joins a distinguish group of 14 deserving men and women: outstanding individuals who selflessly volunteer their time to ensure open, transparent government, and freedom of information in their states and for their communities.”

       The FOI Summit, which also serves as the national coalition’s annual conference, brings together state and regional FOI coalitions and advocates of open government.  Tom Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, is this year’s keynote speaker. Visit NFOIC onlineor call NOW to register for this year’s FOIA Summit. Travel scholarships are available to early registrants.

June 9, 2014 7:05 AM

All over the world, groups and individuals are using technology in a variety of innovative ways to increase government transparency, fight corruption, open data, hack on civic problems, strengthen economic development, address environmental problems, improve public health and education, and advance the conditions of women and children.

Our name for this trend is "We-government" or "WeGov" for short. Unlike the older practice of e-government, where public agencies are in the driver's seat and use tech to tell citizens what officials want them to know, allow them to upload required information, and invite input but only on government's terms, WeGov is what happens when citizens and NGOs take fuller advantage of tech's affordances to create (and sometimes co-create, with government's involvement) new and better approaches to providing and using vital public information and services.

techPresident's WeGov vertical is where we cover the people, projects, trends and ideas that are shaping this emerging space with a mix of in-depth feature reporting, daily news digests, and the development of a growing archive of articles, modules and pointers to other valuable resources. Continue>>>
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May 19, 2014 7:16 AM

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker opened the monthly Tribal Council meeting last week with a call for more transparency in government and strengthening of the tribe’s Freedom of Information Act, according to a tribe news release.

A Tribal Council work group will review potential changes to the law, then share its findings at the council’s Rules Committee meeting on May 28.

Baker said as a Tribal Council member he voted three times to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act. “Only four months into my tenure as principal chief, I had the privilege of signing into law even more protections for FOIA. The Cherokee Nation has always been a beacon of progress among all tribal nations, and we should continue to be a leader in all areas, including transparency,” Baker stated in the release. 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 4, 2014 9:52 PM

A string of legal cases against lawmakers that include two Democrats facing political corruption charges has magnified the usually quiet race for the office overseeing California elections and campaign fundraising.

Candidates vying to become secretary of state are offering competing plans to inject transparency and restore public faith in government.

A race that typically exists in the political backwaters of a California election season popped on to the public stage earlier this year when one of the top candidates, Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee, was arrested and later indicted on federal corruption charges as part of a wider probe into illicit dealings in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Yee has since pleaded not guilty and dropped his candidacy, even though his name will remain on the June 3 primary ballot. Continue>>>
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April 24, 2014 7:43 AM

A bill that would bring greater transparency to California’s century-old ballot initiative system was approved on Tuesday, April 22, by lawmakers on the State Senate’s Elections Committee. The Ballot Initiative Transparency Act, SB1253, authored by Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg (D – Sacramento) was approved on a 4-to-1 vote and moves forward to the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

“California’s commitment to direct democracy through its illustrious initiative process has given citizens a powerful voice in state governance and has enabled the people of California to outflank the corporate self-interests of billion-dollar industries like Big Tobacco” said Senator Steinberg. “This bill offers the system greater transparency and greater collaboration, strengthening our direct democracy for another century to come.”

The measure would give voters more comprehensive information on ballot initiatives, requiring the Secretary of State to post on a website an easy-to-understand summary of the initiative, as well as a regularly updated listing of the ten donors who have contributed the most money to campaigns in support and opposition of the initiative. In addition, once the proponents have collected 25 percent of the necessary signatures to place a measure on the ballot, Senate and Assembly committees will hold public hearings on the proposed initiative at least 131 days prior to the election. Proponents will also be allowed to withdraw a proposed initiative from the ballot at any time before it qualifies for the ballot, even if that occurs after signatures have been submitted for certification. Continue>>>
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April 24, 2014 7:41 AM

A big data transformation is evolving apace in government agencies across the United States, and federal organizations will soon join the movement as the historic Data Act has just cleared a major milestone. Teradata Corp. (NYSE: TDC), the analytic data platforms, marketing applications and services company, announced today that supporters of the legislation will gather one week from today, April 29, for the inaugural Data Transparency Summit at Union Market in Washington, sponsored by the Data Transparency Coalition.

The legislation, passed by the U.S. Senate Thursday, April 10, is expected to help provide detailed data visibility to government agencies, lawmakers and U.S. citizens. Those attending the summit will hear presentations that showcase the valuable insights possible with integrated, centralized data and analytics. The event will feature key legislators and executive branch officials, including U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio).

"During a time of record $17 trillion debt, our bipartisan bill will help identify and eliminate wasteful spending by better tracking federal spending. I am pleased that our bill to improve federal financial transparency and empower taxpayers to see how their money is spent has passed the Senate, and I urge swift passage in the House of Representatives," Senator Portman said. Continue>>>
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