Combating Government Secrecy through Freedom of Information

New Sunshine Week report shares best practices to maximize the power of FOIA

In response to a growing culture of government secrecy, people are seeking new ways to defend their right to information and combat intensifying threats to transparency and accountability. Openness advocates, journalists, litigators and grassroots organizations working on a range of policy issues are increasingly looking to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to shine light on government actions carried out in our name, but without our knowledge. Today, Open The Government released a Best Practices Guide to FOIA Collaboration, highlighting cases where FOIA collaboration is successfully being used to fuel advocacy campaigns and advance openness policies.

“The OTG coalition is using FOIA more every day in clever ways to roll-back the tide of government secrecy, strengthening overall collective demands for transparency in the process,” said Lisa Rosenberg, Executive Director of Open The Government. “We are immensely grateful for everyone who shared their FOIA success stories with us, and are thrilled to build on a body of knowledge to help fuel efforts to maximize the full power of the law.”

Government secrecy is nothing new. But, with the advent of the Trump Administration, new threats to the public’s right to know have emerged. A report released last week by OTG, Closing Democracy’s Window, documents how during the first year of the current administration there has been a rapid erosion of openness, a crumbling of norms, frequent and ongoing disparagement of the media, efforts to stonewall information requests, manipulation of data, and outright suppression of facts.

In this climate, as the public and advocacy community relies more on FOIA, new opportunities arise for cross-sector coordination on openness initiatives. FOIA works best when requesters are not only armed with knowledge of the inner-workings of the law, but also look towards collaboration as an avenue to overcome the many challenges to access. Collaborative approaches can include: coordinating with journalists to share documents and break stories; connecting subject matter experts with FOIA specialists; consulting with FOIA litigators; planning joint advocacy strategies around FOIA requests; and working with a coalition to change the law. The cases highlighted in OTG’s new FOIA guide show how collaboration can help unearth secret surveillance programs, reveal hidden influence of private contractors, expose wasteful government spending, uncover U.S. foreign aid going to human rights abusers, and more.

In coordination with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the guide released today will be published on RCFP’s FOIA Wiki site, which receives contributions from the FOIA Project, MuckRock, National Security Archive, FOIA Mapper, and the general public. The goal is to provide a running resource for the public to add their success stories, share lessons learned, to empower the openness community to fight secrecy and advance the public’s right to know.

Read the full report here, and contribute to the evolving resource through the FOIA Wiki, here

For more FOIA tips from a media perspective, watch this episode of “How to be a Journalist,” from the Washington Post, on “Everything you need to know about FOIA.”