Policy and News Update for July 10, 2012

In This Issue:

News from Coalition Partners & Others

I. Improving Oversight of FOIA Processing

News from Coalition Partners & Others


Center for Responsive Politics Takes on “Shadow Money”


Policy experts, attorneys, and journalists convened on June 20th at the Center for Responsive Politics to debate the role of nonprofit social welfare groups in campaign finance. Sponsor of the DISCLOSE Act Rep. Chris Van Hollen acted as the keynote speaker, addressing the lack of transparency in 501 (c)(4) political activity. These “nonprofit social welfare” groups are allowed to lobby and engage in political spending but are not required to disclose their donors.


American Library Association Hosts Annual Conference

The American Library Association hosted its Annual Conference in Anaheim, California on June 21 – 26. During the event OpenTheGovernment.org’s Executive Director Patrice McDermott participated in a panel entitled “National Security vs. the Right to Know.” The panel, sponsored by the Social Responsibilities Round Table and the Law & Political Science Section, addressed the conflict between security concerns and transparency, free press, and creating safe channels for whistleblowing.

Partners Celebrate FOIA’s 46th Birthday

In between the fireworks and picnics, OpenTheGovernment.org and many of our coalition partners took a moment to reflect on the Freedom of Information Act’s past and future. We discussed the threats to FOIA, the importance of the Office of Government Information Services, and future improvements to the system. The Project on Government Oversight listed “Five Things the Public Wouldn’t Know Without FOIA” along with an infographic displaying the highs and lows of the Act. The National Security Archive recognized the occasion with a list of 46 news articles that were made possible by the FOIA. The Sunlight Foundation responded to the National Security Archive’s post with some thoughts of their own on the challenges to FOIA.

I. Improving Oversight of FOIA Processing

In March 2011 the Department of Justice's Office of Information Policy (OIP) launched a website, FOIA.gov, with the purpose of making it easier for the public to track and compare annual FOIA processing statistics. A recent report from Government Accountability Office (GAO), finds that the data on FOIA.gov is generally a reliable match to data in agency reports, though some technical issues (which we've discussed before call into question the completeness of some reports. What the GAO study does not take into account, however, is whether the data agencies are turning into OIP are reliable and if the data points are useful indicators of how well an agency is meeting its obligations to answer public requests for information.

The quality and utility of agency annual FOIA reports came up last year in a study we authored with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) last year. What began as an effort to use FOIA statistics as a tool to compare processing under different Administrations, became in large part an assessment of the problems on FOIA.gov and the related data, including basic math errors, typographical errors, and inconsistent year-to-year reporting. We have suggested some steps to improve the data, including audits by OIP and the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), having a senior official sign-off on the accuracy and completeness of the reports, and additional OIP trainings.

We have also made some suggestions for modifying or adding new data points in order to improve public understanding of FOIA processing and oversight. Below are some of our primary recommendations:

  • Data relating to the (OGIS) — including relevant data points include how many cases are opened and how many times agencies refer requesters to OGIS.
  • Data on the number of times agencies change initial determinations on fee waivers. Over the last few years, FOIA requesters and litigators have noted an uptick in the denial of fee waivers by agencies for requesters who meet FOIA’s eligibility requirements for fee waivers.
  • Modify the “Processing Time” metric. The current metric is unclear on agency search time for responsive material, and response preparation, and does not specify when people outside the agency are responsible for delays. The new metric should list, in numbers of days: (1) the “Total Processing Time,” the days since the date the request was received; (2) “User Delay,” the days the case was on hold while the agency waited to hear from requester; (3) “Consult Delay,” the days the agency waited to hear back from another agency on a consult; and (4) “Referral Delay,” the days it took an agency to act on a referral made to it.

The ultimate usefulness of FOIA.gov as an accountability tool depends on the quality of data on the site, and whether or not it is tracking the right data points. We look forward to working with our partners and the government to improve oversight of the process.








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