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Successes, Failures Mark Sunshine Week

Mar 20, 2014

Successes, Failures Mark Sunshine Week

One of the advantages in having an annual event is that it gives you the opportunity to compare how things have changed from year to year. In the case of government open data, Sunshine Week provides a useful touchstone to look at ways that government transparency has improved—or deteriorated—since the previous year.

This year, much of the focus is on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)—the law that grants American citizens the right to access information from the federal government—its flaws, and how it can be improved.

For example, watchdogs note that the Obama Administration is actually complying with fewer FOIA requests as time goes on. “In 2012, the year of Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency (NSA) revelations, the administration cited “national security” as reason to keep hidden information a record 8,496 times,” writes Noel Brinkerhoff for AllGov. “That was 57% more than during the previous year and more than double during Obama’s first year in office, when it cited that reason 3,658 times.”

Moreover, as Sunshine Week proponents point out, federal agencies are still failing to comply with FOIA as written today. “The National Security Archive is reporting that 50 out of 101 agencies have not updated their FOIA regulations since the OPEN Government Act of 2007,” the Sunshine Week site notes. “Even fewer have updated since President Obama committed to improving the FOIA in 2009. One, the Federal Trade Commission, hasn’t updated its regulations since 1975!”

The Center for Effective Government also released its annual report on FOIA requests and support, which this year chose to criticize a number of Federal agencies.  None of the 15 agencies that receive the most FOIA requests “earned exemplary scores (an overall A grade), and only eight earned “passing grades” (60 or more out of a possible 100 points),” the group reported, though it found cause to be optimistic that at least one agency got an exemplary score in each category.

Consequently, Congress has been working on a bill to help make FOIA requests easier. The FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act—“ paving the way for more streamlined Freedom of Information Act request processing and a stronger role for the independent agency charged with reviewing government compliance,” writes the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press—passed the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year. The bill calls for a centralized FOIA processing system and looks for ways to improve agency compliance. The Senate Judiciary Committee also held a hearing on the future of FOIA earlier this month, chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy.

On the other hand, since last year, a number of states have initiated efforts to remove certain records from the scope of FOIA. In Connecticut, for example, such efforts began after the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012. “The legislature, with no public hearing, voted overwhelmingly to make crime scene photos and some 911 calls secret for the first time,” writes James Smith in the Hartford Courant. A taskforce appointed since then recommended even more secrecy. “If the recommendations of the Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public's Right to Know are adopted, no 911 calls about homicides will ever be heard…Crime scene photos will be off limits—except for a laborious process that could take months or years to make them public,” he warns.

The past year has shown a number of other disheartening incidents in government open data. We have seen, yet again, cases of governors and gubernatorial staffs using private email systems, rather than the official ones, in what appears to be attempts to circumvent the people’s right to know. For example, the staff of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie reportedly used a private email system to discuss shutting down the bridge in Fort Lee. Similarly, the staff of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker allegedly had a private email system set up right in the office to allow them to work on his campaign as well—a practice forbidden by state law.

On the other hand, it’s not all bad news. Florida, for example, is working to expand its public records law to make it easier for citizens to request records, such as no longer requiring people to submit requests in writing and limiting the charges that can accrue to collect the records, writes Bill Cotterell in the Tallahassee Democrat.

As with many other movements, government open data sometimes seems to take one step back for every two steps it takes forward. And, ultimately, there is no final version of perfect government openness. It is the journey, not the destination. It’ll take us until next year to find out how far we traveled this year.

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