Open government beats FOIA for information access

Beth Noveck said new culture promotes free release of data

People requesting data through open government initiatives are getting much quicker responses than people using the traditional Freedom of Information Act channels, according to a senior White House official.

Beth Noveck, deputy CTO at the White House, suggested that the public should bypass the FOIA process and instead go directly to open government offices for data. Speaking at the American Constitution Society recently, Noveck addressed complaints that obtaining information through FOIA may take weeks or months.

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“Why are you going to the lawyers?” Noveck said. “If you [file a request under FOIA], you will wait months and months, that is how it works. It is the nature of the process.” Because agencies must deal with large volume of FOIA requests, mostly in paperwork, it takes time and legal expertise to process the requests, she said.

To avoid the long wait, Noveck suggested applying for data directly from open government executives.

“Don’t write to the lawyers, write to the open government offices,” Noveck said. Some people have seen results in as little as 24 hours, although most take longer, she added.

Federal open government executives are promoting a culture in which large quantities of data are being made available to the public in easily accessible formats on a regular basis, Noveck said. Since April, each federal agency has created an open government unit and an open government plan that is culling high-value data for release.

“The open government process is our new paradigm,” Noveck said.

Open government encompasses not only transparency and government accountability, but it goes beyond those to include citizen empowerment, corporate accountability and economic and job growth through the greater use and availability of government data, Noveck said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Tue, Jan 11, 2011 Michael D. Long Knoxville, TN

I linked to this article from the one announcing Ms. Noveck is returning to academia, where she was a law professor. It appears that she was completely unqualified to serve in any technical capacity, and from her opinions (if accurately represented) on "open government" instead of the FOIA process it also appears she is unqualified to practice law. This is a shining example of the damage done to our nation by the political appointment process, whereby the unqualified are put in positions of authority in order to reward political support.

Mon, Dec 20, 2010 Mark Patrick Joint Staff (DOD)

@DB, DoD's FOIA office can be reached easily via the web, If you search using "FOIA" and the name of the government agency in which you have interest, you will usually find FOIA request information.

Tue, Nov 30, 2010 DB Potomac FAlls VA

How would any one know who to (DIRECTLY) send a request to. The FOIA office is the only location I am aware of that will take a request. And yes while the turnaround time is 20 business days most agencies are not in compliance. If you would share a list of the direct agency contact points so interested Americans can get past all of the red tape and delays it would be greatly appreciated.

Tue, Nov 30, 2010 Mark Patrick Joint Staff (DOD)

Two thoughts, one to add to what the previous commenter stated, and one a response to the article. 1) In addition to personal information which requires time to protect, classified information also requires protection (viz Wikileaks). So, 2) although I am 100% in support of the Open Government Initiative as a first stop for individuals seeking government information, in many cases, the information which is relevant, responsive, and appropriate for requesters must be reviewed for privacy and classified content requiring redaction by law. These facts make the FOIA far from irrelevant, but a critical compliment to the Open Government Initiative. One final thought (bonus!), in my locale, information access professionals who service the FOIA are not lawyers, but technical experts in the process who run things by lawyers when a legal issue is at stake. We have worked diligently locally to leverage electronic workflow and e-discovery techniques to speed up our FOIA case work but accept that throughout government this type of process improvement is inconsistent (and likely under resourced.) The FOIA and the Open Government Initiative are not at odds with one another -- quite the contrary. Thanks Alice for a compelling article!

Mon, Nov 29, 2010 FOIA Officer

Ms Noveck maybe should take a few minutes and actually read the FOIA, she might learn the following about FOIA:
1. Agencies are required to respond to a FOIA within 20 business days, not months and months as she asserts. If the agency fails to do so, and does not notify the requester of any delay, the requester has the right to take the agency to court.

2. Although I agree with the concept of ‘open government’, and it’s applicability in many cases, the FOIA also protects a lot of personal, privileged or confidential trade secrets and commercial or financial information that would otherwise do more harm than good if freely disclosed without regard to the rights of others.
Would the White House disclose, via its open government unit, a list of all While House employees and include each employee’s name and email address?

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