2011 Knight Open Government Survey Finds Freedom of Information Change, But Many Federal Agencies Lag in Fulfilling President Obama’s Day One Openness Pledge

Published on The National Security Archive NSA, March 14, 2011. – For more information contact Tom Blanton or Nate Jones, 202/994-7045, or by Email.

Washington, D.C., March 14, 2011 – The Obama administration is only about halfway toward its promise of improving Freedom of Information responsiveness among federal agencies, according to the new Knight Open Government Survey by the National Security Archive, released today for Sunshine Week at N.S. … // 

… The Archive found significant change among the responsive agencies especially in the area of discretionary releases of information.  Before the Obama proclamations, agencies withheld most drafts of internal documents, and even staff-level reports, under the 5th exemption to the FOIA that applies to “pre-decisional” or “deliberative process” information.  Openness advocates had long argued that this kind of material was exactly necessary to bring the greatest transparency and accountability to government decision-making.  Now, agency reporting shows declining use of the so-called “b-5” exemption, and the 2011 Knight Survey received multiple responses from the high-scoring agencies that included their own drafts and internal e-mails about how to respond to the Emanuel-Bauer memo.  A standout here was the Department of the Interior, which provided copies of e-mail exchanges noting how the agency’s own IT restrictions kept FOIA officers from seeing key FOIA blogs – a problem no doubt now remedied.

Agency responses to the Archive’s FOIA requests also highlighted the real potential of online proactive disclosure as the most efficient way to inform the public and reduce the burden of individual request processing.  The highest-scoring agencies in the 2011 Knight Survey provided multiple examples of online publication of materials that previously had to be requested under FOIA, but now were accessible with the click of a mouse.  A standout here was the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which finally this month is fulfilling a Congressional mandate from 2008, to put online its consumer complaints database – dealing with product defects in baby cribs, drywall, and the like.  Manufacturers and Congressional critics had threatened to hold up the public’s online access, but Obama administration commitment clearly carried the day.

In contrast, 12 federal agencies reported still-pending FOIA requests more than six years old, when the law requires a 20-business-day response time.  The Archive’s findings suggest a major part of the problem is the “daisy-chain” of referrals between agencies, since 10 out of the 12 with ancient requests reported similarly ancient referrals. (full text).

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