Category Archives: Freedom of Information

Barriers to Using Government Data: Extended Analysis of the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking’s Survey of Federal Agencies and Offices

Source: Nick Hart, Kody Carmody, Bipartisan Policy Center, October 2018

Policymakers face many demands from constituents, budgetary processes, and their commitment to providing good services for the American people. This last concern is made easier when policymakers have access to reliable information to guide their decisions. But access to data and the ability to turn those data into evidence to inform decisions can be hampered by legal restrictions on access to sensitive data, constitutional constraints, and the availability of resources.

In 2016, Congress and the president established the U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking and charged it with developing a strategy for addressing these barriers. During the commission’s fact-finding efforts, it launched a survey of agencies and units across the federal government to better understand existing barriers to data access and use. The data collected in the survey then provided initial evidence that the commission considered in making its recommendations.

Extended analysis of the commission survey confirms much of what the commission concluded in its final report, validating identified legal and regulatory barriers to using data. The extended analysis also leads to new findings:
1. Federal offices perceive that their roles in evidence-building activities are in niches and largely do not perceive their data collection as for a broad range of purposes like evaluation that would require better coordination across an agency.
2. Units within federal agencies exhibit wide variation in their capacity for data sharing and linkage. 3. Challenges to using data for evidence building are distributed across virtually every policy domain. Respondents identify federal tax information as especially difficult to access and use.
4. Despite some offices reportedly lacking resources to conduct evidence-building activities, it is still quite common for offices to conduct at least some data sharing and linking. However, agencies still indicate substantial gaps in developing metadata, sharing with third parties, conducting disclosure reviews, and engaging in disclosure avoidance protocols to protect data. Statistical agencies were by far better positioned for this work than other agencies…..

Records, Papers, Decisions: Kavanaugh Records and the Presidential Records Act

Source: Meghan M. Stuessy, Congressional Research Service, CRS Insight, IN10959, August 27, 2018

Since Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court was received on July 10, papers detailing his activities in the George W. Bush Administration and the Office of Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr have been the subject of ongoing congressional interest. Specifically, many Members of Congress have discussed the public release of Judge Kavanaugh’s records and whether the scope and volume of records released is similar to the records of previous Supreme Court nominees.

The release and maintenance of records pertaining to Judge Kavanaugh’s tenure in these offices is governed by the interaction of the Federal Records Act, the Presidential Records Act (PRA), and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). While the Federal Records Act applies to all federal records, such as Judge Kavanaugh’s attorney work files from his tenure with the Office of Independent Counsel, the PRA applies only to records created on behalf of a president, such as records created during the George W. Bush Administration….

Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance

Source: Pengjie Gao – University of Notre Dame, Chang Lee and Dermot Murphy – University of Illinois at Chicago, July 11, 2018, presented at the Brookings Municipal Finance Conference July 17, 2018

From the abstract:
Local newspapers hold their governments accountable. We examine the effect of local newspaper closures on public finance for local governments. Following a newspaper closure, we find municipal borrowing costs increase by 5 to 11 basis points in the long run. Identification tests illustrate that these results are not being driven by deteriorating local economic conditions. The loss of monitoring that results from newspaper closures is associated with increased government inefficiencies, including higher likelihoods of costly advance refundings and negotiated issues, and higher government wages, employees, and tax revenues.

Related:
View Murphy’s slides
View McGranahan’s slides

How closures of local newspapers increase local government borrowing costs
Source: Vivien Lee and David Wessel, Brookings Institution, Up Front blog, July 16, 2018

Local newspaper closures increase local government borrowing costs, according to a paper to be presented at the 2018 Municipal Finance Conference at Brookings. The paper, “Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance,” also finds that local newspapers are especially important in states with low quality governance, and that online media are not acting as sufficient substitutes for local papers.

Pengjie Gao of the University of Notre Dame and Chang Lee and Dermot Murphy of the University of Illinois at Chicago are among the first to examine the effect of reduced local news coverage on local government finance. From 2003 to 2014, the circulation of local newspapers decreased by 27 percent, and statehouse reporters decreased by 35 percent.

Using data on local newspapers and municipal bond yields from 1996 to 2015, the authors compare municipal bond yield spreads for counties with three or fewer local papers before and after a closure, to counties where no local papers closed. Three years after a newspaper closure, municipal bond yields in that county increase by 0.05 to 0.11 percentage points, they find. The authors find similar results when comparing the effect of closures on bond yields between counties with few local newspapers and counties with many papers. They argue that this is because closures in counties with high numbers of local newspapers will probably not affect local news coverage, as other newspapers may fill in any potential information gaps.

SCOTUS Watch

Source: Jay Pinho and Victoria Kwan, SCOTUS Watch, 2018

What is this?
SCOTUS Watch tracks the public statements made by United States senators about how they plan to vote on the Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, and tallies them into a likely vote count. This tally is based solely on their statements: we do not make estimates or guesses based on a senator’s party affiliation or ideology.

Related:
CIA Successfully Conceals Bay Of Pigs History
Source: National Security Archive, May 21, 2014
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit yesterday joined the CIA’s cover-up of its Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961 by ruling that a 30-year-old volume of the CIA’s draft “official history” could be withheld from the public under the “deliberative process” privilege, even though four of the five volumes have previously been released with no harm either to national security or any government deliberation. …. The 2-1 decision, authored by Judge Brett Kavanaugh (a George W. Bush appointee and co-author of the Kenneth Starr report that published extensive details of the Monica Lewinsky affair), agreed with Justice Department and CIA lawyers that because the history volume was a “pre-decisional and deliberative” draft, its release would “expose an agency’s decision making process in such a way as to discourage candid discussion within the agency and thereby undermine the agency’s ability to perform its functions.”….

D.C. Circuit Review – Reviewed: Brooding Spirits, Judge Kavanaugh Edition
Source: Aaron Nielson, Notice & Comment, July 9, 2018

Here’s Where Trump’s New Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh Stands On Abortion, Executive Power, And Guns
Source: Zoe Tillman, BuzzFeed News, July 9, 2018
Kavanaugh has written hundreds of opinions in more than a decade on the DC Circuit.

Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick, explained
Source: Dylan Matthews, Vox, July 9, 2018
He’s a veteran of every conservative fight from the Clinton impeachment to the fight against Obamacare.

Brett Kavanaugh has sided with broad views of presidential powers
Source: Ann E. Marimow Washington Post, July 9, 2018

Students, Alumni Urge Yale Law School’s Leadership To Denounce Brett Kavanaugh
Source: Carla Herreria, Huffington Post, July 11, 2018
Even though Yale Law School published a press release touting the accomplishments of Brett Kavanaugh, its alumnus and President Donald Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee, not everyone at the school is singing his praises. As of Tuesday night, more than 200 students, staff members and alumni of Yale Law School signed an open letter calling for the institution to rescind its apparent support of Kavanaugh.

Open FOIL NY Online Form

Source: New York State, 2018

A convenient, centralized location to file a FOIL request to more than 50 New York State executive agencies and authorities. You can easily select multiple agencies in a single FOIL request.
Reading Room
Access agency records, publications, reports or statistics already available in the Open FOIL Reading Room.

FOIL Resource Center
Review the Freedom of Information Law, get answers to FAQs, find an Agency Records Access Officer, or view an Agency FOIL website to learn more about records requests.

Open Data
Browse and download over 1,600 New York State data resources, and realize new opportunities to explore, discover, analyze, reuse, and visualize data.

Historical Supreme Court Cases Now Online: More Than 35,000 Decisions Now Available, Searchable on loc.gov

Source: Library of Congress, Press Release, March 13, 2018

More than 225 years of Supreme Court decisions acquired by the Library of Congress are now publicly available online – free to access in a page image format for the first time. The Library has made available more than 35,000 cases that were published in the printed bound editions of United States Reports (U.S. Reports). United States Reports is a series of bound case reporters that are the official reports of decisions for the United States Supreme Court dating to the court’s first decision in 1791 and to earlier courts that preceded the Supreme Court in the colonial era. The Library’s new online collection offers access to individual cases published in volumes 1-542 of the bound edition. This collection of Supreme Court cases is fully searchable. Filters allow users to narrow their searches by date, name of the justice authoring the opinion, subject and by the main legal concepts at issue in each case. PDF versions of individual cases can be viewed and downloaded.

Long-Proprietary Congressional Research Reports Will Now Be Made Public

Source: Charles S. Clark, Government Executive, March 23, 2018

Lawmakers who long protected their right to control reports from the Congressional Research Service now face a new era of full disclosure.

Buried in the 2,232-page fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill Congress approved and President Trump signed is a much-debated provision to require the Library of Congress, beginning 90 days after the bill’s enactment, to post all the lawmaker-requested reports on a central website….

Essential or extravagant: Considering FOIA budgets, costs and fees

Source: A.J. Wagner, Government Information Quarterly, In Press – Corrected Proof, Available online 14 September 2017
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
This study seeks to square the competing arguments of the Freedom of Information Act’s necessity versus its financial burden by analyzing more than 500 FOIA annual reports, representing 93% of all cabinet- level data from 1975 until 2015.

FOIA expenses account for less than 1% of agency budgets, and while costs per request have increased over time, the small proportion of FOIA expense versus general budgets has remained stagnant.

Highlights
• A database of cabinet-level FOIA annual reports from 1975 to 2015 is analyzed.
• There are no federal requirements or close scrutiny of FOIA funding and budgets.
• Fees collected have accounted for only 3.2% of FOIA costs.
• Departments have accrued $6.3 billion in FOIA costs since 1975, or $386 per request.
• FOIA costs have amounted to 0.011% of general departmental budgets.

Predict Your FOIA Request Success

Source: data.world, 2017

Does your FOIA have a shot? This model is trained on 9,000+ FOIA requests tracked by MuckRock.

Predictions made using a K nearest neighbors classification algorithm with a test classification accuracy rate of 80%. Factors include word count, average sentence length, specificity (presence of nouns), references to fees, references to FOIA, presence of hyperlinks, presence of email addresses, and success rate of agency.
Related:
What makes a good FOIA request? We studied 33,000 to find out.
Source: Nicolas Dias, Rashida Kamal, and Laurent Bastien, January 30, 2017

Every journalist has ideas about what makes a good public records request. But surprisingly few people have actually tried to systematically analyze how requests can be written to improve their chances of success. To fill this vacuum, we analyzed more than 33,000 Freedom of Information Act requests and identified a few characteristics that were typical of those that were fulfilled…..