The law that’s supposed to keep citizens in the know about what their government is doing is about to get more robust.
Seven agencies — including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — launched an effort to put online 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 Open Government initiative began quietly on the agencies’ Web sites last week 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 ODNI, 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 U.S. Postal Service’s outsourcing of stamp sales and other retail services traditionally offered by post offices to Staples has been a simmering wound with postal unions, prompting nationwide protests and calls for a boycott of the office-supply retailer.
Now, one of the biggest labor battles in recent years is headed to Washington, where the National Labor Relations Board will rule in August on whether the Staples deal violates the Postal Service’s collective bargaining agreement with the American Postal Workers Union.
The USPS launched a pilot program with Staples in 2013 to offer counter services in 82 stores.
After the pilot ended last year, Staples became an approved shipper for the Postal Service.
With both programs, Staples employees staff counters inside stores and offer a range of post office services. The shipping program is operating in about 1,000 stores.
The cash-strapped Postal Service said the arrangement would help save on labor costs, the biggest expense on its balance sheet.
But the deal was met with angry protests from the APWU, which represents about 200,000 employees, or about half of the postal workforce.
The union said the Postal Service violated its collective bargaining agreement by illegally subcontracting work to Staples without bargaining first with the union.
The APWU called last year for a boycott of Staples stores and the company’s Quill.com Web site.
The average wage of a post office employee is about $25 an hour. A sales associate at Staples makes about $8.50 an hour on average.
Postal Service spokeswoman Darlene Casey said the agency could not comment since the issue is the subject of litigation.