Agencies should brace for more public access to records

The Transparency Project helps file FOIA requests and offers transparency tools.

Image of file folders

Ageencies should be ready to release records more often as the Electronic Frontier Foundation launches a new effort to help the public request government information. (Stock image)

Want to know who authorized surveillance drone flights over American soil, or if the government could track citizens through their mobile devices? Curious about what agencies are up to, or what it takes to file a Freedom of Information Act request?

Agency officials should get ready, because information-seeking citizens have one more tool for seeking information and answers from the federal government.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation  last week unveiled the Transparency Project, a project that combines its longstanding efforts to file and litigate federal FOIA requests with new efforts to report transparency issues in a broader format and make information easier to access for its users.

“It’s a bit of a re-launch for us, we’ve always had a long-running, successful FOIA project, but we have expanded what we’re doing in government transparency and thought it was time to rebrand and announce our new tools,” said Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney for the San Francisco-based, digital rights government watchdog group.

Among those tools are upgraded document-search capabilities, allowing users to narrow searches through hundreds of thousands of pages of documents obtained through FOIA requests to specific issues, agencies, formats and dates. Users can also sift through historical government transparency data, explore how to create and file their own FOIA requests or sift through EFF’s major transparency battles since its inception in 1990.

Lynch said EFF’s archived FOIA data differs significantly FOIA-related data released by the federal government online through avenues like www.foia.gov  because EFF’s archives are specific to FOIA requests made by the watchdog group. 

“We’ve really made our work more accessible for everyone – we have hundreds of thousands of pages of documents that could be very useful for people doing all sorts of different work,” Lynch said. “It helps to keep the government accountable. We have federal and state statutes that require the government to turn over information to citizens who ask for it. We want to promote that accountability.”

In recent months, the federal government has taken steps to improve accountability, according to Joey Hutcherson, Deputy Director of Open Government for the Department of Commerce.

In October, Hutcherson said, Commerce and several other agencies rolled out FOIAonline, a new shared-services model that allows the public to search through the FOIA inquiries of participating federal agencies by date, keyword and other parameters.

At FOIAonline, users can search for and download actual FOIA requests and accompanying information. Hutcherson said the data on FOIAonline is packaged in a “more consumable format” that allows users to quickly search through and put it to use. Hutcherson added that records at FOIAonline are “more in-depth” and specific than the more broad datasets already published at www.FOIA.gov, which is operated by the Justice Department.

“We are trying to be open and transparent, we’re trying to do the right thing because we work for the taxpayers,” Hutcherson said. “For a long time, we were in the 19th century, but it was our responsibility to the American people to improve.”

For nonprofit government watchdog and whistleblower groups, improved accountability is of the utmost importance.  Lynch said organizations such as EFF routinely enter litigation with the federal government in the name of accountability – so while agency efforts like FOIA.gov and FOIAonline are valuable, they do not reduce the need for watchdog projects.

Tom Devine, Legal Director for the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower protection organization based in Washington, D.C. that has partnered with EFF before, agreed. He said that watchdogs and whistleblowers have organized a very “deep-rooted transparency coalition of public interest groups” that focus on government transparency and accountability – and for good reason.

“The government has a conflict of interest keeping itself accountable,” Devine said. “The key principle for a free society is that information is power, and as a result, our system of checks and balances cannot work credibly unless public nongovernmental organizations are enfranchised in the front line of those checks and balances.”

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