Bringing a Focus on the Freedom of Information Act

Over the past few months, OpenTheGovernment.org has been working to bring a renewed focus to how the open government community can work together to address some of the major issues with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). As anyone who has ever filed a FOIA request likely recognizes, despite Congress' most recent amendments to the FOIA (in 2007 and 2009) and initiatives by the Administration to improve FOIA, the process continues to be filled with delays and agencies are using over-broad interpretations of FOIA's exemptions to withhold information.

There are a number of ways the community can address FOIA's problems: for example, we can work with the Administration and individual agencies; we can lobby for new changes to the law; and we can sue the government for not complying with the law. Generally, though, organizations tend to "specialize" in one or a few of these differing tactics. In October 2013, we brought together advocates, journalists, litigators, and others together for a FOIA Summit. The purpose of the event was to determine what are the biggest problems with the FOIA to be addressed and what are our goals, and to craft plans to make the system work better for requesters.

Prior to the event, our organizing committee identified twenty-one potential topics to discuss during the Summit, and asked attendees to "vote" for what issues they would like to see on the final agenda. The list of possible topics included those purely concerning FOIA and related issues that prevent the public from having timely access to government records like over-classification and records management. You can see a full list of the proposed topics here. Attendees ended up discussing eleven issues over the course of the day and a half, and created six action plans. The plans address: the Office of Government Information Services, proactive dissemination, exemption 5, overclassification and exemption 1, records management, and the Department of Justice's litigation stance. Notes from the planning sessions, and pictures from the event, are available here. We set up list servs to keep attendees who expressed an interest in continuing to work on the issues in touch with each other.

In January we also brought together a small group of representatives from organizations that work frequently with OGIS or were involved in the legislation that created the office with OGIS staff. The meeting was convened to permit an in-depth discussion about differing visions of, assumptions about and expectations for the office. The number of people invited to the meeting was limited both to encourage a free exchange of ideas and to make sure all attendees – both from the FOIA community and OGIS—had an opportunity to share their views. We also occasionally hold brown-bag meetings with OGIS to provide outside stakeholders with an opportunity to share their views on how OGIS can achieve its strategic goals and serve its mission. Please email info@openthegovernment.org to join the brown bag series.

Submitted by abennett on 02/18/2014