The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is the public’s gateway to information about its government. That gateway, however, is often obstructed by lack of resources, a culture of secrecy, and what US Attorney General Eric Holder described in his 2009 FOIA memo as “unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles.” In our Managing FOIA blog, we chronicled our recent experiences with these hurdles, inefficiencies, and inconsistencies. Today, the National Security Archive shed some light on why these obstacles persist.
In a government-wide FOIA audit, the National Security Archive found that sixty-two out of ninety-nine government agencies have not updated their FOIA regulations since Holder’s 2009 FOIA memorandum. The OPEN Government Act of 2007 seemed to leave little impression as well—fifty-six agencies have not updated their FOIA regulations since the statute mandated reformed fee structures, and request-tracking numbers.
FOIA regulations are an essential tool for FOIA officers to making decisions while processing requests. Without updated regulations, the implementation of FOIA will remain out of sync with the culture of openness announced by the Administration. Holder’s memo directed agencies to approach FOIA with a presumption of disclosure. That shift from a culture of secrecy must start through agencies’ regulations.
But even the existing, outdated regulations have fallen prey to another obstacle to government openness—ungainly websites. The Archive illustrates how agencies’ websites placed an “undue burden on the requesters seeking FOIA regulations,” with broken links, formatting inconsistencies, and in seventeen cases, the complete absence of FOIA regulations from the internet.
The Archive outlined several steps agencies must take to get a moving on transparency. Senator Patrick Leahy, a co-author of the OPEN Government Act, noted in a statement that the National Security Archive’s findings underscored the need for movement on the Faster FOIA Act (S. 1466), which would establish a commission to provide recommendations for the improvement of FOIA administration. As we have told Congress before, it is time to get a fresh perspective on FOIA. For agencies, it’s time to turn promises of openness into policy and practice.