Sunshine Week is upon us, which means it’s time to think about how the federal government can be more open to the public and check in on recent efforts to increase transparency.
Congress is once again staring at a pair of bipartisan bills to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, a law that allows the public to access federal records with limited exceptions.
The measures would establish a “presumption of openness” with government documents, codifying a directive President Obama issued to federal agencies in 2009.
They would also give the Office of Government Information Services greater authority and independence, while requiring the government to create a consolidated online portal for FOIA requests.
Last year, the House and Senate unanimously passed similar FOIA bills, but they never agreed to vote on each other’s measures, allowing the legislation to fail despite overwhelming support.
Beyond legislation, POGO has called on President Obama to issue executive orders requiring intelligence agencies to report on the number of U.S. citizens or individuals living in the United States who are under surveillance.
Such a move would help the Obama administration address privacy concerns that surfaced after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed details of a sweeping domestic surveillance program.
The White House expressed support last year for a bill that would have included the reporting requirement, but the measure died in the Senate.
POGO said the Obama administration should implement the rule independently to “promote better public understanding and appropriate oversight of U.S. surveillance programs.”
The group has also called on Obama to support protections for intelligence contractors who blow the whistle on government waste, fraud and abuse, among other actions the organization has proposed.
In terms of FOIA compliance, the Obama administration appears to have made improvements over last year, based on an annual report card from the Center for Effective Government that lists access-to-information grades for the 15 federal agencies that receive the most information requests.
Ten of the agencies did not earn satisfactory overall grades last year, earning less than 70 points out of a possible 100. Nonetheless, eight agencies earned higher overall scores, meaning most of them improved.
The State Department, which has been criticized in recent weeks because former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used only a personal Blackberry and email account for official business, received an overall F grade. The agency ended 2013 with the same score.
The Agriculture Department performed best last year, earning 85 points for a B grade. The Social Security Administration placed second with 82 points and a B-.
The scores are based on the quality of agencies’ FOIA Web sites and their processing timeliness, as well as whether they have established clear rules for releasing information and communicating with requestors.