In addition to acting as a mediator between the public and the federal government in disputes over the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) is responsible for recommending policy changes to the Congress and President to improve the administration of FOIA. Last week, OGIS used its blog, The FOIA Ombudsman, to begin soliciting input from the community on what recommendations they should be making.
The post is recommended reading for anyone who is interested in making the federal government more open and accountable. The topic is how to "increase proactive disclosures" – a term those of us steeped in the FOIA process use to mean "have the government give you more information before you have to ask for it." In a way, emphasizing proactive disclosure turns FOIA on its head: instead of waiting for the public to file a formal request for information, then sending the request through the whole search, review and respond process, the government turns over information up front. In theory, it is a win-win because the public gets more information faster, and, since the information is already public, the government spends less resources fulfilling basic FOIA requests.
One of the biggest challenges to making proactive disclosure work like it should in theory is making sure the government is releasing meaningful information. The natural inclination of the government is to release more of what makes it look good. How do make sure the government releases information that may be embarrassing?
For the last year, OpenTheGovernment.org and some of our partners have been pushing the concept of a government-wide "openness floor," a list of types of information each federal component should – at a minimum- release. The items on the list include information that helps people understand what the government is doing and why. This information, sometimes referred to as "accountability" or "ethics" information includes items like calendars for top agency officials and lobbying disclosure forms that can make it easier for the public to find out who federal officials are hearing from and how it is shaping their policy choices.
In March we released a short report based on an audit of information available on the websites of ten agencies that are considered to be among the "leaders" in transparent government. We asked our evaluators to spend no more than five minutes each searching for a sub-set of items from the openness floor. Unfortunately, we found that the public lacks consistent access to any of the information on our list, indicating how far the government has to go to to meet 21st century expectations of transparency.