U.S. Announces Variety of New Transparency Plans

16 March 2011

Although a scheduled meeting of freedom of information activists with President Obama on U.S. Freedom of Information Day was postponed, administration officials took advantage of “Sunshine Week” to make a variety of pro-transparency announcements.

FOI leaders had planned to laud Obama publicly for his commitment to transparency while privately pressing him to do more. However, the March 16 White House meeting was cancelled because of events in Japan. It is expected be rescheduled soon.

In the meantime, the Obama administration unveiled a variety of new transparency efforts. Among other things, the administration:  

–          Established FOIA.gov, a website contains various information resources and FOIA implementation reports from government agencies, among other things. A White House blog post describes it.

–          Created a new federal job title, FOIA Officer or FOIA Specialist, “to designate agency staff committed to the administration of FOIA,” as explained  in another blog post, by Steve Croley, Special Assistant to the President for Justice and Regulatory Policy.

–          Initiated a process “to create a new job series for FOIA and other information professionals, so that agencies may more effectively recruit staff focused on FOIA.” Learn more about the memos issued by the government personnel agency here.

–          Announced plans to bringing together the FOIA requester community with federal agencies in a series of “Requester Roundtables.”

–          Said steps are being taken to provide help to agencies that have special needs, such as to handle unexpected spikes in FOIA requests.

–          Promised that agencies will proactively post agency directories on their Open Government web pages.

–          Said agencies will post official congressional testimony and agency reports to Congress.

Transparency advocates generally have applauded the Obama administration’s efforts, but feel much more could be done. 

Obama on his first day in office issued a memo instructing agencies to stop following a restrictive FOIA policy issued during the Bush administration. Administration officials also cite efforts to get agencies to publish more data, see data.gov.

A recent spin-off of data.gov, “The Law Data Community,” provides access “to legal data from across the Executive Branch in the form of administrative decisions, case filings, legal interpretations and agency directives.” Also new is “Data.gov in the Classroom.”

A Jan. 18 presidential memo asked agencies to prepare plans for proactively providing information about their regulatory compliance and enforcement activities.

In his March 14 blog post, Croley cited a variety of statistical improvements in FOIA administration, including that in 56 percent of the cases agencies full disclosure to requesters, up 6 percent over last year. The use of certain common exemptions is down, he reported.

Critical Reports

Nevertheless, critics are seeking more rapid progress. A report issued March 16 by the pubic interest group, OMB Watch, said, “Though some progress has been made, the analysis shows that the federal government is still in a rebuilding phase when it comes to FOIA openness.”

Sean Moulton, director of Federal Information Policy at OMB Watch, said: “Several openness indicators have improved from previous years, some after many years of steady decline. However, most of the indicators are still worse than during the Bush administration, a period known for its secrecy,” Moulton noted, adding that it is hard to turn the ship of state around immediately.”

Earlier in the week, the National Security Archive also issued an evaluation. (See previous Freedominfo.org report.)

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