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Sunshine Week: Transparency issues persist with Obama administration


(Saul Loeb/Getty Images)

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Sunday marked the start of Sunshine Week, a time when government-transparency advocates promote their cause and issue reports gauging the openness of federal agencies.

The findings have never been great for the current administration, which promised to be the most transparent in history on the day President Obama took office. In recent years, most agencies have not fully complied with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requirements.

This year’s reports show improvement in some areas, but still much to be desired by news organizations and open-government groups such as the Center for Effective Government and the National Security Archive.

An Associated Press analysis of federal data found that the Obama administration has grown more secretive over time, last year censoring or outright denying FOIA access to government files more than ever since Obama took office.

The administration has also cited more legal exceptions to justify withholding materials and refused to turn over newsworthy files quickly, and most agencies took longer to answer records requests, according to the AP study.

A separate report this week from the National Security Archives found that 54 percent of all agencies have ignored directives that Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder issued in 2009 calling for a “presumption of disclosure” with FOIA requests. The good news: That number is down from about 70 percent of agencies last year.

The National Security Archives also found that nearly half of all federal agencies have not updated their FOIA regulations to comply with 2007 amendments Congress made to the law. The changes require agencies to cooperate with a new FOIA ombudsman in the Office of Government Information Services and report specific data on FOIA output, among other provisions.

The National Security Archive, which claims to file more FOIA requests than any other group, gathers and publishes declassified U.S. government files, with a focus on U.S. foreign policy documents.

In a third analysis, the Center for Effective Government released its annual government-transparency report card on Monday, handing out failing grades to seven of the 15 agencies it reviewed. The scores are based on three metrics: processing requests for information, establishing rules for answering requests and creating user-friendly Web sites.

The White House has put forward an action plan that could help the administration improve its marks by creating one core FOIA regulation and a common set of practices to help requesters and federal agencies better understand the guidelines.

In Congress, the House has passed a bipartisan bill that would require agencies to update their regulations within 180 days.

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks@washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics for more federal news. E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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