Open government

How does FOIA fit under the Trump administration?

Shutterstock image (Dencg) : digital government concept.  

In the absence of new directives from the Trump administration, open government advocates from the public and private sectors are continuing their work to strengthen and expand the use of the Freedom of Information Act.

FOIA is a 50-year-old transparency law compelling the federal government to disclose information requested by citizens, with certain exceptions for privacy and security concerns. The Freedom of Information Act Advisory Committee, which met on Jan. 26 in Washington, is a panel created in 2014 to encourage dialog between government and the requestor community.

Committee chair and Office of Government Information Services Director Alina Semo told FCW that FOIA would play an important role in a Trump administration, as it has under prior presidents, by providing a way for the public to directly access government documents.

“I think all of us in the FOIA community have a great interest in continuing open government and access to information,” she said. “Without any other guidance, we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing, and try to come up with great recommendations that can be implemented by the agencies.”

Semo said that as agency case loads have “gone up exponentially,” the FOIA Improvement Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2016, “added some teeth” to the law. She added that she would like to see greater access and “help requesters at an earlier stage in the process.”

The FOIA Improvement Act mandated the release of further FOIA guidance on Jan. 1, 2017, as well as the creation of a consolidated FOIA request portal later in the year, with the Department of Justice and Office of Management and Budget taking leading roles. Melanie Pustay, the director of Justice’s Office of Information Policy, said her agency was still considering public comments for the final policy.

As for the portal site, Pustay said its funding has been secured, and that DOJ and OMB hoped to begin work with 18F “in a few weeks” and ultimately launch before the end of fiscal year 2017.

Sunlight Foundation Deputy Director Alex Howard told FCW that FOIA use “is going to be crucial this year and in the years ahead” to “hold the [Trump] administration accountable.”

“FOIA is the way the public can get access about its government, to understand what’s happening,” he said. “Congress has seen fit to give the public the right to access records, and to use the judicial branch as a crucial bulwark for transparency and accountability is not only appropriate but necessary.”

Howard expressed concern about the early tone set by the administration regarding transparency and accountability, but added that he hopes the 115th Congress will continue to legislate open government laws and conduct oversight.

Howard also said that “without clear guidance showing that an administration has this as a priority,” agencies may put less emphasis on improving their FOIA processes, which have been repeatedly criticized.

On an agency level, Department of Health and Human Services FOIA officer Michael Marquis described the management efforts his agency has enforced to reduce FOIA request processing time, and how he's looked to tech solutions for future improvements.

Marquis said HHS plans to launch a site to track all of its pending FOIA requests “in the next couple of weeks.” He added that he eventually hopes to consolidate the “two parallel tracking systems” that handle FOIA requests, and to expand the use of technology and automation to track appeals.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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