The law that’s supposed to keep citizens in the know about what their government is doing is about to get more robust.
Starting this week, seven agencies — including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — launched a new effort to put online the records they distribute to requesters under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
So if a journalist, nonprofit group or corporation asks for the records, what they see, the public also will see. Documents still will be redacted where necessary to protect what the government decides is sensitive information, an area that’s often disputed but won’t change with this policy.
The Obama administration’s new Open Government initiative began quietly on the agencies’ Web sites days after FOIA’s 49th anniversary. It’s a response to years of pressure from open-government groups and lawmakers to boost public access to records of government decisions, deliberations and policies.
The “release to one is release to all” policy will start as a six-month pilot at the EPA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Millennium Challenge Corporation and within some offices at the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department, the Justice Department and the National Archives and Records Administration.
(The EPA has been publishing its FOIA responses online since 2013).
“We’re very excited about the idea behind this and the premise of moving the ball forward on public access,” said Melanie Ann Pustay, director of the Office of Information Policy at the Justice Department, which is leading the effort.
An announcement on the Defense Department Web site says the agency “invites the public’s feedback as we explore this proposed policy shift, and welcome innovative ideas and suggestions for overcoming the implementation challenges.”
Federal agencies received 714,231 requests for records under FOIA in fiscal 2014, up from 514,541 in fiscal 2009. But policies on publicizing the information have varied widely, with some agencies not posting anything online and others waiting until at least three people or organizations request the same records to make them public.
“Most agencies have interpreted that very narrowly and they don’t put up much,” said Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of nonprofit groups seeking wider government transparency and public-records access that pushed for the new policy.
McDermott acknowledged that some journalists and researchers were concerned that “they could be scooped” if their record requests go public, but she said they concluded that access was the priority.
“The best thing is that the administration is moving forward with what will be a significant benefit to the public, without being required to by Congress.”
The new policy will exempt from wider public view requests individuals make for their own records.
Federal agencies are struggling to keep up with a growing number of requests for public information, raising questions in Congress about the Obama administration’s dedication to transparency.
The backlog of unfulfilled requests for documents has doubled since President Obama took office in 2009, according to Justice Department data. The number of requests also has spiked.
The new policy won’t affect that backlog; in fact, administration officials acknowledge that it could slow the production of records given agencies’ new responsibilities to post the information online. Of the 714,231 requests in fiscal 2014, 647,000 were filled, according to federal data. About 60 percent of those were released in full or denied partially.
Open-government advocates and administration officials said there was resistance to the change partly because of the administrative burden; records must be accessible to the visually impaired, and special software is required to code graphs and other elements of records into readable documents.
Other unresolved questions include how much staff time it will take to scan the documents.
“Some records are thousands of pages long and need to be coded so they’re accessible to the disabled,” Pustay said. “We love the concept of this, but there are lots of different challenges.”
McDermott said some agency officials “had concerns about information getting into the hands of people who don’t have the context of it,” and using it against the White House.
Congress came one floor vote away last year from passing bipartisan open-government legislation in the Senate and the House, but lawmakers ran out of time as they rushed to reach agreement on spending legislation.
Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) two of the staunchest advocates for strengthening open-records laws, reintroduced legislation early this year to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act.
But those bills do not address the effort underway now to make the records more accessible.