Open government

GOP report slams the whole government on FOIA

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The Freedom of Information Act's best intentions are being stymied in spite of technology that should make government transparency easier to achieve.

A majority staff report from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, made public Jan. 11, flogged a wide variety of agencies for undermining FOIA.

"The FOIA process is broken," the report states. "Hundreds of thousands of requests are made each year, and hundreds of thousands of requests are backlogged, marked with inappropriate redactions or otherwise denied."

Many feds apparently are not embracing FOIA's spirit of transparency. In some cases, huge chunks of information that should have been made public -- or were already publicly available -- were inappropriately redacted.

The House is trying to update FOIA, which is more than 50 years old. The FOIA Improvement Act of 2015, sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), is scheduled for a floor vote on the evening of Jan. 11. Among other things, the bill would expand the automatic electronic release of documents that are the subject of multiple FOIA requests and add consequences for agencies that miss deadlines. A similar measure passed the House by a 410-0 vote in 2014.

Regardless of whether that legislation is enacted, the report raises the question of why technology's simplifying potential has not been applied to FOIA compliance. Some experts say the challenges of using a mix of legacy systems and new tools might be hampering agencies' electronic search capabilities.

"Technology makes data readily available and easy to access," MJ Henshaw, spokesperson for Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), told FCW. "The federal government spends more than $80 billion a year on IT, with roughly 80 percent of that spent on legacy systems. New and updated IT systems within the federal government would have the capability to speed up the FOIA process."

Of course, agencies would have to check electronic records in the first place, which is not always the case. The report cites an investigation by the State Department's inspector general that says the department did not search for email records "as a matter of course."

"The periodic search for emails was only conducted if a request explicitly referred to 'emails' or 'all records,'" the report states.

However, it's not all doom and gloom. In 2015, the Obama administration reaffirmed a commitment to improving the FOIA.gov portal, and a report by the Justice Department's Office of Information Policy lauds agencies for making technological strides on the FOIA front.

The new congressional report, however, slammed Justice's review for "grade inflation" cheerleading and pinned much of the blame for the frustrating FOIA process on the Obama administration.

"Despite a public assertion that agencies should promptly respond and that the disclosure decision should not be based on personal interests, on direction from the White House, agencies routinely delay responses to allow for an extra layer of review by those persons with the greatest concerns about embarrassment and revealing failures," the report states.

Cummings, the committee's ranking member, took issue with the report.

"This erroneous, incomplete and highly partisan staff report -- which has never been vetted or voted on by the committee -- will not help improve" the FOIA process, Cummings said.

He blamed GOP budget cuts for the FOIA backlog and noted that previous presidential administrations had been deliberately opaque.

Obama "promised openness, and he delivered," Cummings said.

The report calls for structural reform and new legislation to help refocus the FOIA process on the government transparency it was meant to achieve.

About the Author

Zach Noble is a staff writer covering digital citizen services, workforce issues and a range of civilian federal agencies.

Before joining FCW in 2015, Noble served as assistant editor at the viral news site TheBlaze, where he wrote a mix of business, political and breaking news stories and managed weekend news coverage. He has also written for online and print publications including The Washington Free Beacon, The Santa Barbara News-Press, The Federalist and Washington Technology.

Noble is a graduate of Saint Vincent College, where he studied English, economics and mathematics.

Click here for previous articles by Noble, or connect with him on Twitter: @thezachnoble.


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Reader comments

Wed, Jan 13, 2016 HarryH

As always, whatever we need to do requires new computing equipment and more budget to respond. Much of the requested data ought to be on-line, searchable from public portals in the first place. If internal email is already a public record it should be captured and cataloged in the course of ordinary business. Workers should know and understand the rules.

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