FOI Advocate News Blog

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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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August 25, 2014 8:17 AM

The pulpit is calling. It’s time do a little preaching. The subject isn’t fresh. The spin is different. The old sermon is about FOI. The new message is about FYI. For your information, FOI stands for Freedom of Information. Hopefully, that is not new information. For your information, FOI is information for you.

You thought it was for journalists? You thought wrong. FOI and FYI should be blended into something that you need to grasp: freedom of your information. FOYI. We think of ourselves as bulldogs. Our mission is to protect you from ignorant or deceptive and even devious public bodies. We make a lot of noise when sunshine laws are trampled upon.

We need to do a better job of inspiring citizens — you — to make noise. Whimpers are better than silence, but shouts are needed to make a difference. Bark. Growl. Show your teeth. Be ready to bite at the ballot box. We need to unite. “We” should be journalists and citizens. Rather, citizens and journalists. Without more of a grassroots push for FOI reform, government could run amok. Continue>>>
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August 22, 2014 7:53 AM

The Environmental Protection Agency’s public release of farmers’ and ranchers’ personal information violates basic tenets of federal law, the American Farm Bureau Federation told a Minnesota federal court late Friday.

The EPA surprised the farming and ranching community in early 2013 when it publicly released a massive database of personal information about tens of thousands of livestock and poultry farmers, ranchers and their families in 29 states. The information was distributed to three environmental groups that had filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act. The database included the names of farmers, ranchers and sometimes other family members, home addresses, GPS coordinates, telephone numbers and emails.

“The EPA is displaying a callous disregard for basic privacy rights,” Bob Stallman said AFBF President. “EPA believes that if information about you can be found somewhere on the Internet, or if you own a closely held family corporation, you have no interest in protecting your personal information. All citizens should be worried about that, not just farmers and ranchers.” Continue>>>
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August 22, 2014 7:51 AM

The New York Press Club is publicly criticizing Gov. Chris Christie and his staff for blacklisting New Jersey Watchdog. The journalists’ organization “expresses its outrage over the Christie administration’s apparent ‘blacklisting’ of New Jersey Watchdog, in an effort to prevent the news outlet from receiving press advisories and official announcements from the governor’s office,” Press Club President Larry Seary said.

The governor and his staff have offered no explanation for excluding the investigative news site from official communications.

“One may infer that, by suppressing information, the Christie administration may be attempting to hamper the efforts of New Jersey Watchdog’s efforts to cover political news,” said Seary. “It is ironic that Chris Christie claims to be a champion of open government while allowing his staff to deny access to public information, which is already available to other news outlets.” In response, the web site has resorted to Open Public Records Act requests in an effort to combat Christie’s selective government secrecy. Continue>>>
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August 22, 2014 7:49 AM

Seven years ago, the Office of Management and Budget launched USASpending.gov to let the public easily track how their tax dollars were spent on contracts, grants, loans and other spending. It was supposed to be a big win for open government. Except when the Government Accountability Office checked to see how well it tracked spending in 2012, it found the site to be less than useless.

The audit found that out of the roughly $1 trillion federal agencies spent in these areas that year, $619 billion of it didn’t get reported to the site. The biggest offender was Health and Human Services, which failed to report $544 billion in spending on programs like Medicare. Veterans Affairs came in second with $64 billion in unreported spending. The Interior Department finished third at $5.3 billion. The White House itself failed to report $247 million worth of 2012 spending.

In addition, the GAO found that only 2% to 7% of the reports that were filed contained complete and accurate data. More astonishing still, the GAO often couldn’t verify information reported to USASpending.gov because original agency records weren’t available or reliable. Continue>>>
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August 22, 2014 7:47 AM

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, FOG, today filed an Inspection of Public Records Act request asking for the investigation report prepared for the Albuquerque Public School Board about former Superintendent Winston Brooks. Last Friday, Brooks and APS entered into a settlement agreement in which Brooks resigned in return for a $350,000 payment by APS.

"The public deserves to know the circumstances of Brooks' resignation and why public money is being spent to end his employment two years before his contract termination date," said Kathi Bearden, president of FOG.

Although the settlement agreement was released, APS has refused to release the investigation report that was prepared by attorney Agnes Padilla of Butt, Thornton & Baehr, P.C. for the school board, or provide any information about the content of the report. "The investigation report is a public document and needs to be released," Ms. Bearden said. "No one has seen the report, but we assume it is mainly a factual account, not opinion, and therefore not protected by the limited personnel exemption under IPRA." Continue>>>
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August 22, 2014 7:45 AM

A new study puts the Beehive State near the top when it comes to making government data accessible. The Center for Data Innovation gave Utah a score of 8, which is the highest possible, for its open data policies.

From Roll Call: "Here’s why the report thinks having both a detailed open data policy and open data portals that provide data in machine-readable formats and through a single location are important:

"The purpose of open data portals is to provide government accountability and data that can be used for socially and economically beneficial purposes, and they are more likely to continue to be updated and maintained if they are backed up by state policies, just as policies are more likely to be effective if there is a place to publish the data they require."

The other states that scored at the top of the study were Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York and Oklahoma. The bottom scoring states are Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, South Dakota and Wyoming. Continue>>>
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August 22, 2014 7:44 AM

One of the ways to improve government is to make it easier for taxpayers to see how money flows through the system. It's often called transparency. The office of Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka has taken another step in that direction in announcing a new mobile application called Illinois Pays.
The app is free and can be downloaded at the Apple and Google Play stores.

“Illinois Pays gives you quick and easy access to the latest news and announcements from the comptroller’s office,” said Topinka. “It also allows vendors to set up the app to view the most recent payments we have deposited in their bank accounts.”

The app allows users to get an up-to-date view of the state's financial status, the ratings from various firms and other news from the comptroller's office that controls the state's “checkbook'' in addition to serving as the state's chief fiscal office. For vendors who have business with the state, the app should be particularly useful. It's no secret many vendors wait months to receive payment from the state. With this app, vendors can track their payments and see when the state might have the money to pay their bills. Continue>>>
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August 20, 2014 10:29 AM

Speaking in Texas the day before he was assassinated, President John F. Kennedy affirmed, “We seek a free flow of information … We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” One of the key assets to our democracy came with the internet and the ability to make government information widely available through any browser. However, not all information is readily available. The U.S. Constitution itself does not provide any public access rights to inspect or copy government records.

Even before the internet, journalists and others tried to make it easier to get information from government agencies. The dramatic growth of the federal government after World War II made it difficult for even Congress itself to get the information that it needed from the various government offices. Congress mounted a series of open government efforts after the war, resulting in the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) of 1946. The APA’s language was limited, giving broad discretion to agencies and permitting access only to “persons properly and directly concerned” with records; however, it was a start to providing a structure for a more comprehensive right of access.

In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) into law. FOIA is actually a revision of the earlier APA legislation. Since then, many amendments, acts, and executive orders have followed. Last year, Congress introduced a bill that is now known as the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2014. This law would allow for easier information requests and faster receipt. The impact and value this legislation would have are difficult to measure; however, it is widely seen as further eroding the existing roadblocks to accessing government information. Continue>>>
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August 20, 2014 10:27 AM

Reports measuring the "progress, or regress" two prisons in Erie County, N.Y., have made since a 2011 settlement with the Justice Department face disclosure, the 2nd Circuit ruled Monday.

Unconstitutional conditions in the state prisons prompted Attorney General Eric Holder to file a 2009 complaint in Buffalo against Erie County. Officials "repeatedly and consistently disregarded known or serious risks of harm to inmates," including sexual abuse from guards, excessive force, infectious diseases and placing prisoners in cells with "multiple means for committing suicide," the lawsuit said.

Two years later, Erie agreed to extensive reforms outlined in a 40-page settlement dismissing the case. The terms called for two compliance officers looking into mental health and medical issues to file sealed biannual reports of their prisons' progress with the court. The New York Civil Liberties Union sought to uncover these documents in 2012. Continue>>>
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August 20, 2014 10:26 AM

Wisconsin open records advocates and municipal leaders have brokered a truce in a fight over police record redactions, creating a request form that allows the public to get clean copies if they reveal who they are and why they want the documents.

The deal is a departure from Wisconsin's open records law, which does not require either piece of information. The Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, the two groups that crafted the agreement, say it's meant as a non-binding, stop-gap measure to ensure people can get full reports while a state appeals court sorts out whether federal law mandates the redaction of personal information. "We don't like it," Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said of the agreement. "They're making you do something our state records law says you can't do. (But) it makes a bad situation slightly better."

Police departments often use motor vehicle records to obtain people's names, addresses, birthdates and other personal information. More Wisconsin departments have been redacting that information from incident and accident reports before releasing them to avoid violating the 1994 federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act, which requires states to obtain consent before they release a driver's personal information. Continue>>>
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August 20, 2014 10:25 AM

In part one of my interview with Pia Mancini, a political activist, I investigated the technologies and background of DemocracyOS, a project aiming to become the operating system of choice for government workers. In part two of my interview with Mancini, she discusses the challenges DemocracyOS faces and how her organization, Democracia en Red, is working to overcome them.

Interview with Pia Mancini, part 2

What have been some of the challenges in developing DemocracyOS and getting governments and groups to adopt it?

Using DemocracyOS represents a challenge for any institution used to make decisions in the traditional way. It is designed for governments to open themselves up to citizen engagement, but power is usually conservative. But the biggest challenge is probably to fight against the presumption that citizens are naturally apathetic and shun commitment. Our challenge is cultural, not technological.

The government in your home country of Argentina has been a bit wary of DemocracyOS. Why do you think that is?

I wouldn’t say it’s been wary, but they were certainly not comfortable with the idea. Power is conservative, and those in power want to stay in power. What DemocracyOS does is innovate in one of the few areas of our lives that Internet wasn’t affecting yet: politics. We are opening up an entrenched system and that naturally generates resistance. Continue>>>
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August 20, 2014 10:22 AM

After promising not to withhold government information over "speculative or abstract fears," the Obama administration has concluded it will not publicly disclose federal records that could shed light on the security of the government's health care website because doing so could "potentially" allow hackers to break in.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services denied a request by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act for documents about the kinds of security software and computer systems behind the federally funded HealthCare.gov. The AP requested the records late last year amid concerns that Republicans raised about the security of the website, which had technical glitches that prevented millions of people from signing up for insurance under President Barack Obama's health care law.

In denying access to the documents, including what's known as a site security plan, Medicare told the AP that disclosing them could violate health-privacy laws because it might give hackers enough information to break into the service. Continue>>>
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