Despite the Obama administration having sent a clear message to agencies to open up government, many barriers still exist, including the proliferation of statutory exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the reliance on contractors to decide what can and can't be released, and a shell-game that shifts backlogs from one agency to another, the Project On Government Oversight told a congressional panel today.
POGO's Director of Public Policy Angela Canterbury reported that independent studies of FOIA released this week delivered mixed, but overall disappointing reviews. But Canterbury, testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, acknowledged, "It takes time to build an openness infrastructure and change a culture resistant to both change and scrutiny."
"It's time for FOIA to move fully into the digital age, and for the government to begin to make most FOIA requests a relic of the past," she said. "The guiding vision for the future should be making all public information available online in a timely manner."
One step the government can take to improve transparency would be to automate FOIA requests by putting them online in a sortable, trackable database, Canterbury said. Proactively releasing information and automating the FOIA system would eventually save billions of taxpayer dollars by allowing the government to stop putting money and resources into responding to, processing, and litigating many FOIA requests.
Canterbury raised other concerns in her testimony, including reports that at least one agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has hired outside firms to help them clear their backlog of FOIA requests is especially troubling if those contractors are making decisions on what can be released to the public.
Chairman Darell Issa (R-Calif.) has launched an investigation into possible political interference into requests made to DHS.
"If founded, these issues are of great concern—FOIA should never be used for political purposes, and the identity of a requestor should never impact the response," Canterbury said. "POGO is also concerned with the involvement of government contractors in FOIA at DHS and other agencies, as well as interference in IG independence, all of which should be examined."
Likewise, Congress must take a close look at statutory exemptions to FOIA and how agencies are using them, she said. She also warned them to expect proposals to replace the broad interpretation of Exemption 2 recently thrown out by the Supreme Court and to resist the pressure to substitute it outright. POGO hopes you will be vigilant in balancing the public's right to know with other interests, said Canterbury.
Chairman Issa's sweeping investigation into government-wide FOIA requests could provide a clearer picture of how FOIA is and isn't working, but must be transparent and not over-burden the agencies.
Canterbury recommended the Committee work to enact two bills introduced this week: the Faster FOIA Act, introduced by Senators Leahy and Cornyn and the Transparency and Openness in Government Act, introduced by Ranking Member Cummings.
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