Holding the Government Accountable

FOIA: Release to One, Wait, Release to All

In an exciting step for transparency, the Obama Administration announced a pilot program as part of its Open Government Initiative last week that will make Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) responses from select federal agencies publically available. The six-month pilot program, called “Release to One, Release to All,” is a positive change from the existing FOIA policy in which records are not publically shared unless there have been three or more requests.

There are seven participating agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and components of the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the National Archives and Records Administration. The Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) is leading the pilot and has invited the public to provide feedback on the program. OIP will consider those comments when making the decision whether to apply the program to all agencies in the federal government.

“Release to One, Release to All” establishes many time- and cost-saving improvements to the slow FOIA system. By allowing people to easily access information that has already been released in response to a request, the program should help agencies reduce their substantial FOIA request backlogs, avoid duplicative requests and processing, and answer more requests.

However, POGO believes there needs to be a short waiting period between releasing the information to the requester and to the rest of the public. As an investigative organization itself, POGO shares concerns with some investigative journalists that simultaneously giving the public access to documents they’ve worked hard to uncover will hurt the investigative process. Everyone having access to information diminishes the chance of a breaking story.

Rick Blum, an open government advocate, explains, “With exclusives at risk, investigative journalists are less likely to use FOIA to engage in the kind of deep-dive work that exposes corruption or failed policies that would otherwise not see the light of day, this argument goes…. Journalists concerned agencies may be suddenly dumping documents and with it lots of scoops should be reassured to know this project is only a six-month test by the agencies participating....This is fact-gathering. And it is a conversation worth having.”

But let’s not make perfect the enemy of good. Although we would like to see the pilot program include a short waiting time before public release of FOIAed records so that investigative journalistic entities can still benefit from the enormous amounts of work they did to gain access to the information, this is a good pilot program.