Freedom of Information Act at 50 and Newly Improved

For those of you who care about access to government data for reasons of transparency, feel-good openness, competitive advantage or other, June 30 was an overall ok/good day.

Obama signed the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 in an attempt to solidify his administration’s legacy as the most transparent in US history. Many are skeptical, including your author, but to mis-paraphrase, government was not reformed in a day. The White House is understandably gushing over the changes, but the discerning watcher can parse the language. Even the Justice Department’s summary is a bit more sobering.

My biggest gripe is unfunded mandates–how can the government offer more to its citizens without additional resources? It’s like adding a few dozen more responsibilities to a job description with a fancy new title and no additional budget. For those curmudgeon-y types (myself included), have a look at past recipients of the Golden Padlock Awards from the Investigative Reporters & Editors.

Some of the (hopeful) highlights:

Presumption of openness: The default position has been to prove that no harm will come as a result of releasing records, but that puts a burden on the FOIA officer. Going forward that burden is removed. Pennsylvania’s right-to-know law had similar shift in 2008, and we are still waiting for this presumption of openness.

“Release to one is a release to all”: I’ve argued for this for over five years (not that anybody was listening!), but am thrilled this will happen–if nothing else it should reduce costs and backlog. Ironically, the CIA has done this for some time.

I’m a big fan of FOIA hacks and non-governmental approaches to gain access. Two of my favorites are Muckrock and FOIA Machine.

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