This March we welcomed the Obama Administration’s announcement that they planned to take some concrete steps to improve the administration of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In particular we appreciated their guidance to agencies on releasing useful information proactively. Unfortunately, however, it appears many agencies didn’t get the memo/blog post; of the twenty-nine agencies who produced substantive open government plans last year, only six are actually making all the specified information available.
The Sunshine Week blog post by Steve Croley, Special Assistant to the President for Justice and Regulatory Policy, announced that, among other things:
"During upcoming weeks, agencies will proactively post on their Open Government web pages agency directories, so that citizens can more easily identify agency offices to meet their needs. In additional, agencies will also post official congressional testimony and agency reports to Congress required by statute, so that the public has better access to communications between agencies and the legislative branch."
As more than a few weeks have passed, we decided it was time to check on whether or nor agencies had followed through on posting directories, reports to Congress, and Congressional testimony, as directed. Our results are as follows:
On the positive side of the ledger, almost eighty percent of the agencies we checked are making some effort to post the information. We were surprised, however, by some of the agencies that are completely non-compliant: NASA and the Department of Agriculture, for example, were among the agencies that produced extremely strong open government plans.
It should also be noted that we found a great diversity in the quality and quantity of the information some agencies posted. As we’ve discussed in the past, proactive disclosure is a win-win for agencies and the public if information that is useful to the public, and in a useful format, is released before anyone has to file a FOIA request for it. The usefulness of what some agencies posted as "staff directories" is questionable. Link to each agency’s "directory," and a brief explanation of what kind of information is available is below.
Which type of directory a member of the public finds useful will, of course, differ depending on her/his goal. The basic organizational chart and general contact numbers model may be great for someone who simply wants to learn more about what an agency does; the "search by name" model may be perfect for someone who wants to call a federal employee they met at an event or have been emailing. In order for "proactive disclosures" to really work, agencies must post something with enough information to satisfy most of their users’ needs.