Category Archives: Freedom of Information

The Freedom of Information Act Turns Fifty & Is Revised

Source: Congressional Research Service, CRS Reports & Analysis, Legal Sidebar, July 1, 2016

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) into law to confer the public with a statutory right of access to many federal agency records. On June 30, 2016, President Barack Obama signed The FOIA Improvement Act (S.337) into law to reform FOIA. The FOIA was drafted to clarify the Administrative Procedure Act, which agency heads had interpreted as authorizing broad, discretionary powers to withhold records. Although the original FOIA proposal was well received by the press, federal agencies were resistant. The Senate passed S. 1160 in 1965 after nearly 6 years of consideration, the House in 1966 after 11 years of legislative development. …. As FOIA moves into its second half-century, the law will likely continue to serve as a primary legal authority supporting requests by private entities for government information. The subject of such requests seems likely to evolve over time, as will the nature of information which the government believes should be shielded from public disclosure. Given the changing nature of these issues, legislative interest in FOIA is likely to continue. ….

We’re building an open guide to every state’s public records law

Source: Michael Morisy, MuckRock, July 14, 2016

Help track down and fight public records exemptions across the country.

With agencies increasingly using an array of exemptions to deny access to information, we want to help requesters fight back. We’re launching a project to track every public records exemption in all 50 states – and provide the information needed to successfully overcome times when information is improperly denied.

The power of administrative appeals is undeniable: At the federal level, over 40 percent of appeals resulted in rejections being overturned last year, according to data.

Budget Transparency and Legislative Budgetary Oversight: An International Approach

Source: Ana-María Ríos, Francisco Bastida, Bernardino Benito, American Review of Public Administration, Vol. 46 no. 5, September 2016
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
This article attempts to evaluate the role the legislative budgetary oversight plays in enhancing budget transparency. This relationship has not been empirically tested so far. For a sample of 93 countries surveyed by International Budget Partnership in 2010, we show that, as expected, legislative budgetary oversight has a positive influence on budget transparency. Besides, the legal system, political competition, and economic level are also found to affect budget transparency. As an additional analysis, we investigate the determinants of legislative budgetary oversight along the budgetary process. In this vein, the type of legislature, legal system, Supreme Audit Institution’s budgetary oversight, economic level, and democratic level determine legislative budgetary oversight.

How business lobby networks shaped the U.S. Freedom of Information Act: An examination of 60 years of congressional testimony

Source: Jeannine E. Relly, Carol B. Schwalbe, Government Information Quarterly, In Press, Available online 6 July 2016
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
The news media and public interest groups pushed hard for the passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966. Since then, however, a majority of FOIA requests have been filed by business representatives or their lawyers, a phenomenon also observed in other countries that have adopted similar legislation. Although myriad policy networks helped shape the present-day U.S. law, this article focuses on the congressional testimony of business interests in the years leading up to the adoption of the FOIA and the following 50 years, as the legislation reaches its half-century anniversary. The authors undertook this research because business interests are the largest requester group under the FOIA. Their influence has been noted in a small strand of literature, largely related to the courts, in steering the degree to which the public has access to information. This study found that business interests, particularly from the 1980s on, played a key role in shaping the FOIA by decreasing access to government-held information. This is a critical finding, given that the FOIA was adopted to promote the democratic norm of governmental accountability.

• Business and corporate representatives are the majority of U.S. FOIA requesters.
• Business networks, from the 1980s on, played a key role in shaping the FOIA.
• Industry networks lobbying for FOIA amendments represented interests of the time.
• Critical junctures provided policy openings for business shaping the FOIA.

Businesses have worked to cut ‘public’s right to know’
Source: Mike Chesnick, Futurity, July 8, 2016

….Relly’s and Schwalbe’s study began with a review of paper records of congressional testimony from the 1950s and ’60s at the State Library of Arizona, then progressed to digital records of testimony from that period to this past year.

For 40 of the FOIA’s 50 years, Relly says, “We found clearly that corporations and business organizations—sometimes representing thousands of companies—pressed lawmakers in testimony and behind the scenes to advance legislation that would advantage industries and disadvantage the public.”….

The Art of the FOIA: Public Records and Donald Trump

Source: Michael Morisy, MuckRock, July 8, 2016

From his real estate deals to a fallen educational empire, Trump has left his mark in the public record

The Freedom of Information Act has been a particularly hot topic this election season, as Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server stymied earlier attempts at requesting State Department records and left many wondering if the elaborate setup was simply a means of avoiding public scrutiny.

But even those who have never served in government can be fair game for clever FOIA requests. You don’t build a sprawling real-estate, media, and #brand empire without agencies taking notice, and Donald Trump is no exception.

Many of the public records released on Trump this election season didn’t come through public records or FOIA requests, but through court records, which generally fall outside of normal request channels but which still remain an important source of public accountability. In many cases, those court records are the best or only feasible way to dig into major disputes involving Trump, even when his choices have reshaped whole cities.

FoIA in the age of “Open. Gov”: An analysis of the performance of the Freedom of Information Act under the Obama and Bush administrations

Source: Ben Wasike, Government Information Quarterly, In Press, May 21, 2016
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
This study used five standard Department of Justice FoIA parameters to analyze and compare FoIA performance between the Obama and Bush administrations in terms of: efficiency, disposition, type of exemptions, redress and staff workload. Results indicate that while efficiency is higher under Obama, agencies are releasing information only in part. While appeals were processed faster under Bush, petitioners have had more success under Obama. Additionally, FoIA staff workload has dramatically reduced under Obama. One notable finding was that contrary to popular media outcry, neither administration evoked national security and law enforcement exemptions as much as has been widely claimed. Legacy and commonality were also findings indicating that certain trends transcend the incumbent. Implications to government transparency and pertinent issues are discussed within.

Freedom of Information Act Legislation in the 114th Congress: Issue Summary and Side-by-Side Analysis

Source: Wendy Ginsberg, Congressional Research Service, CRS Report, R43924, April 21, 2016

Congress is currently considering legislation that would make substantive changes to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). FOIA was originally enacted in 1966 and has been amended numerous times since —most recently in 2009. FOIA provides the public with a presumptive right to access agency records, limited by nine exemptions that allow agencies to withhold certain types or categories of records.

The legislation under consideration in the 114th Congress, S. 337 and H.R. 653, is largely based on bills from the 113th Congress, S. 2520 and H.R. 1211. Both of the bills in the current Congress seek to amend a number of provisions of FOIA for the purpose of increasing public access —including improving electronic accessibility of agency records, clarifying the right to request information related to intra- and inter-agency memoranda or letters, standardizing the use of search and duplication fees by agencies, and requiring agencies to notify requestors of the status of their requests and of the availability of dispute resolution processes for requests that they believe have been inappropriately denied. Both bills would also create a Chief FOIA Officers Council, responsible for informing government-wide FOIA administrators of best practices, and would establish new FOIA-related oversight responsibilities and reporting requirements. ….

…..This report provides a side-by-side comparison of the bills, using the versions that have passed each of their originating congressional chambers. The report also provides context related to bill amendments and language additions that occurred between bill versions, when applicable. Finally, the report provides analysis of certain provisions of the bills. …..

Access to Government Information In the United States: A Primer

Source: Wendy Ginsberg, Michael Greene, Congressional Research Service, CRS Report for Congress, 97-71, March 18, 2016

No provision in the U.S. Constitution expressly establishes a procedure for public access to government records or meetings. Congress, however, has legislated various public access laws.

Among these laws are two records access statutes,
• the Freedom of Information Act (FOI Act or FOIA; 5 U.S.C. §552), and
• the Privacy Act (5 U.S.C. §552a),
and two meetings access statutes,
• the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA; 5 U.S.C. App.), and
• the Government in the Sunshine Act (5 U.S.C. §552b).

These four laws provide the foundation for access to executive branch information in the American federal government. …. This report offers an introduction to the four access laws and provides citations to additional resources related to these statutes. This report includes statistics on the use of FOIA and FACA and on litigation related to FOIA. ….

FOIA Mapper

Source: Max Galka, FOIA Mapper, 2016

What is FOIA and what role does FOIA Mapper play?

Browse by Government Agency:
FOIA logs, record systems, and contact information for making a Freedom of Information request

Find the Data:
Search for government information by keyword or see what other people and news organizations are requesting

From About:
The FOIA dilemma – what can I ask for and how do I ask for it?
Making a Freedom of Information Request is a burdensome process that may involve days or even weeks of work to identify what records are available and enough information about how they are stored to property phrase the request.
Government agencies are required to disclose a list of their “Major Information Systems.” However, this data represents only a small fraction of the universe of public information accessible via Freedom of Information.
For most government record systems, identifying them typically requires scouring an agency’s website for pages relating to the topic, in the hope to finding small clues to help you infer or make educated guesses about what information an agency may have.

The Solution
Since first discovering FOIA a few years ago, I have made hundreds of Freedom of Information requests across a wide range of topics. And in that time, I have learned a few ways of identifying these hidden record systems.
In some cases, information about these record systems can be inferred from online documents (for example: public RFP documents, Federal Register notices). In other cases, information about record systems can itself be obtained via FOIA (for example: database relational schema, lists of FOIA requests made by other people).
FOIA Mapper compiles this information into a centralized catalog of government records, searchable by topic.