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 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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August 20, 2014 10:21 AM
The candidates for Ohio governor travel the state shaking hands and having coffee with voters, which makes them seem pretty accessible and open.
 
But in reality, when it comes to transparency in how they conduct business, experts and observers say Republican Gov. John Kasich and Democratic nominee Ed FitzGerald are quite closed.
 
“When it comes to transparency, Kasich will let you know what you need to know, and the rest is none of your damn business,” said Tim Smith, a lawyer, former newspaper editor and director of the Media Law Center for Ethics and Access at Kent State University. “I had higher hopes for FitzGerald, but he has been rather disappointing in that regard.”
 
Smith is just one of several experts who spoke with The Dispatch who said transparency is not an issue either candidate can win with in the 2014 governor’s race because neither has much he can point to in his favor. Continue>>>
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August 18, 2014 12:35 PM

All governments share a common temptation: to use their power to evade accountability. Several police officers proved it again last week in Ferguson, Missouri.

In the middle of heated demonstrations over the shooting of Michael Brown, two reporters – one from the Washington Post – got roughed up and arrested without cause by officers at a McDonald’s restaurant. The officers may have been set off by Post reporter’s refusal to stop filming them with a video camera. They were certainly set off by the journalists’ presence.

It doesn’t get more black and white: Police slamming citizens around and handcuffing them for recording police behavior. In America, no less – where freedom of the press was written into the First Amendment precisely to guarantee journalists’ right to monitor government. Continue>>>
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August 18, 2014 12:33 PM

What's your dragon attack plan?

Freedom of Information Acts are a powerful transparency tool between governments and constituents. But they can also yield to some pretty freaky inquiries–as we found out Saturday when an organization of local governments representing more than 350 councils in England and Wales released a list of the most unusual requests they had received so far this year

Of that list, we present here–David Letterman style–the Top 10 Weirdest Petitions English Councils Have Had to Field in 2014, along with some snarky answer suggestions for the council-members:


1. “What plans are in place to protect the town from a dragon attack?” (Wigan Council)
Our answer: We haven’t gotten that far in A Song of Fire and Ice yet, sorry.


2. “Please list all the types of animals you have frozen since March 2012, including the type and quantity of each animal.” (Cambridge City Council)
Our answer: We can only account for the types of animals we have subjected to repeated screenings of Disney’s “Frozen.” The results may be disturbing. Continue>>>
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FOIA requests, humor, UK
August 18, 2014 12:32 PM

Now — from the minister who saved the government $15 billion without telling Parliament what he cut; the policy-maker who eliminated Canada's information-laden census and chopped Statistics Canada's budget by $30 million; the MP who siphoned $50 million out of a border security fund to build band shells and gazebos in his riding — comes Tony Clement's latest initiative: a "new action plan on open government."

The Treasury Board president proudly announced this week he has prepared a draft policy "to increase openness and transparency in government." He is inviting the public to comment.It will come as a surprise to most Canadians that a government known for its secrecy and obfuscation is "committed to fostering the principles of open government."

It will astonish political observers that the Tories, who have systematically shut down Ottawa's channels of communication "seek to engage citizens in a public dialogue that will inform the policy creation process." Continue>>>
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Canada
August 18, 2014 12:31 PM

A conservative legal group on Monday plans to file a lawsuit alleging that the White House’s tight control over document requests has led to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) violations by 12 federal agencies.

Cause of Action said the agencies have not handed over documents that the organization asked for up to 14 months ago and that the requests appear to be under White House review, according to a copy of the complaint obtained by The Washington Post. The group plans to file its lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Cause of Action pointed to an April 2009 White House memo as the source of the delays, noting that Gregory Craig, former counsel to President Obama, instructed federal agencies to consult with his office on “all document requests that may involve documents with White House equities.” Continue>>>
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