Policy and News Update for November 13, 2012

In This Issue: [click on the link to go to the corresponding section]
News from Coalition Partners & Others
I. Managing FOIA – Sometimes the FOIA Process Defies Logic
NEW: Coalition Job

News from Coalition Partners & Others

EFF Updates Transparency Project

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) re-launched its Transparency Project last week, improving its successful FOIA project by adding greater accessibility to documents and reporting on government transparency. Document-search capabilities are enhanced, and visitors can now explore EFF’s history of transparency litigation and requesting from its founding in 1990.

Center for Responsive Politics (OpenSecrets.org) Hosts Ask-Me-Anything

OpenSecrets.org fielded dozens of questions from Reddit users in an “Ask Me Anything” forum on Election Day. OpenSecrets’ campaign finance experts put the most recent numbers of spending and donations in context. Questions and responses ranged from categories of donors, Citizens United, dark money, and this election’s place in election spending history.

Finan Honored by National Coalition Against Censorship

On November 12th the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) honored American Booksellers for Free Expression President Chris Finan for his work protecting free speech. Finan also serves as a board chair and advisor for NCAC. The coalition’s Annual Celebration of Free Speech and Its Defenders also honored several publishers and authors dedicated to opposing censorship.

Partners Follow the Campaign Money

Our coalition includes several organizations who work to uncover and expose the roots of the millions of dollars funneled through campaigns, Super PACs, and 501 (c) 4 “social welfare” organizations. The Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org has its’ post-election wrap up here. The Center for Public Integrity’s Consider the Source has its analysis here and Sunlight Foundation breaks down election spending visually here.

Collaboration on Government Secrecy to Evaluate Administration’s Fourth Year

The Collaboration on Government Secrecy will host a FOIA Community Conference, “Transparency in the Obama Administration— A Fourth-Year Assessment,” on January 17, 2013. To preview CGS’s upcoming Spring events, visit here.

I. Managing FOIA – Sometimes the FOIA Process Seems to Defy Logic

About a month ago, we launched Managing FOIA, a blog to chronicle our experience with the FOIA process at several agencies. In particular, we were interested in comparing how the process worked at agencies participating in FOIAOnline, the new shared service website developed by the Environmental Protection Agency to make it easier for the public to request and receive government records at participating agencies, with other agencies.

As we reported a few weeks ago, keeping track of requests made using FOIAOnline is definitely easier. Another of the benefits of the system is supposed to be that everything from making your request to downloading the information can be done online, meaning requesters do not have to wait for the mail to be delivered and any released records can be easily shared electronically. It is up to the agency participating in the system to take advantage of this benefit, however. The Merit Services Protection Board, one of the three agencies participating in FOIAOnline that we sent requests to, still opted to print out their response and send us the responsive records in the mail. The other two requests we made using FOIAOnline are still pending.

We have had even more surprising responses from agencies that are not participating in FOIAOnline. Here are some of the things that have happened that have left us scratching our head:

  • We received a packet in the mail from the Department of Labor that included a response letter and the requested record. As we were scanning in the documents so that we could put them on the blog, we noticed that the letter said that as requested, the records are enclosed electronically." While it is certainly true that we requested the record be released electronically (as we did with all of our requests), the printed out version of the report included in the envelope does not fit into any familiar definition of “electronically.” Two days after we received Labor's letter, we were emailed an electronic version.
  • The process at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was equally redundant; we received a mailed a copy of the record a few days after we received it via email. Considering that we filed our request with VA via email and specifically requested the record electronically, the hard copy in the mail seems wasteful.
  • After going through the Department of Justice's lengthy process to set up an account on their "FOIA Portal," we were told that the Office of Information Policy (OIP) is referring our request to another division of Justice. Unfortunately, since the other division of Justice does not use the FOIA Portal, we can no longer track or manage the request using our account. We have not yet heard anything from the division now handling our request.

We will keep updating our blog and share our observations as we receive more responses.

NEW: Coalition Job

  • Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Fellowships — RCFP seeks applicants for three one-year fellowship programs. The Jack Nelson Legal Fellowship focuses on FOIA, and others focus on other matters of media law. If you know of anyone who may be qualified, please encourage them to apply by December 3.


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