International Right to Know Day 2015: calls for legislative reforms and Executive actions to improve FOIA

In recognition of International Right to Know Day, calls on the Obama Administration to adopt meaningful commitments and support legislative reforms that would significantly improve the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

For nearly 50 years in this country, the FOIA has empowered citizens with access to information essential for democratic governance and accountability. The FOIA has been a critical tool used to oversee the activities of the federal government and expose countless acts of waste, fraud, and abuse. But for every breaking story made possible by the FOIA, countless others are undoubtedly buried as the law’s effectiveness sags under the weight of backlogs, inconsistent proactive disclosure, overbroad exemptions, and outdated technology

An international RTI Rating (created by the Centre for Law and Democracy and Access Info) gave the U.S. a right to information score of 89 out of 150 possible points, ranking it at number 45 out of 102 countries examined for their right to information ranking. The index acknowledged that while the score may undervalue the true openness of the U.S. government, nonetheless, there are significant problems with the United States’ access regime that negatively impact the right to information in our country. The introduction to the index highlights how “exceptions within the law are in many instances not harm tested and there is only a very limited public interest override. The United States also lacks a specialized appeals body and, while American courts have been somewhat good in defending the right to information, they cannot do the job as effectively or expeditiously as an independent appeals body.”

See the index, here.

Fix FOIA by 50:

The upcoming 50th anniversary of the FOIA, on July 4th, 2016, presents a key opportunity to promote reforms that would strengthen the law and enhance the capacity of the public to hold government officials accountable. The open government community is engaged in a “Fix FOIA by 50” campaign, in support of meaningful legislation to help fix FOIA by next year. (See more about the campaign and analysis developed by the Sunshine in Government Initiative).

Both the House and Senate have introduced legislation to improve the FOIA, and nearly identical pieces of legislation earned overwhelming support in the previous session. In February of this year, OTG joined forty-seven groups to thank Senators Cornyn and Leahy and Representatives Issa and Cummings for introducing legislation to reform the Freedom of Information Act. The FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act (H.R. 653) and the FOIA Improvement Act (S. 337) include critical reforms that would help strengthen the public’s ability to hold its government accountable.

The bills include reforms that will have notable tangible impact, by 1) Codifying the Obama Administration’s presumption of openness, 2) Harnessing technology to improve the FOIA process, 3) Reining in FOIA’s 5th exemption, 4) Requiring agencies to submit annual FOIA processing statistics a month earlier so they are available for Sunshine Week, and 4) Strengthening oversight by giving greater independence to the FOIA ombudsman.

Read the February letter here. For more analysis, visit the Sunlight Foundation and the National Security Archive.

Open Government Partnership:

In its second National Action Plan (NAP) for the Open Government Partnership (OGP), the White House committed to standardizing FOIA practices across federal agencies, improving agency FOIA processes by reducing backlogs and promoting proactive disclosure, and increasing FOIA trainings across the government.

While the past OGP commitments on FOIA have led to incremental steps towards improving public access to information, they have not addressed the root causes of the problems with the FOIA process, and fall considerably short of the ambitious commitments this Administration needs to adopt in order to demonstrate a strong political will towards improving public access to information. The government’s own FOIA ombudsman, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), has observed a “lack of knowledge” about FOIA guidelines and persistent problems in FOIA processing in certain agencies. Such assessments highlight the need for the government to adopt more ambitious commitments on FOIA in its forthcoming third Plan.

The openness community has called on the Administration adopt initiatives that strengthen the openness policies laid out on the first day of this Administration, when the President promised to usher in a “new era of openness.” Specifically, the NAP 3 should include a commitment to ensure that the presumption of openness continues on to the next Administration. OTG has delivered recommendations on FOIA initiatives that are critical for achieving the unprecedented levels of openness promised by this Administration, and to demonstrate to U.S. civil society that continued engagement in OGP is a valuable investment that leads to significant openness advances. 

The FOIA civil society recommendations can be found here

Join the conversation on social media:

Follow #IRTKD2015 for updates on International Right to Know Day, and share your #FOISuccess stories to promote the importance of open government. 

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