Category Archives: Freedom of Information

A Condensed User Guide for FOIA Requests

Source: Nicole Johnson, Unredacted, February 3, 2011

While Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to increase government accountability and transparency, the FOIA process may seem to further mystify government relations. Many agree that the anatomy of the FOIA is actually more art than science.

The National Security Archive has committed an entire section of its website, thirteen blog entries, and one 122-page manual, among other resources, to explain how users can effectively engage FOIA. My purpose in writing this blog is to provide you with a single reference for all FOIA inquiries. Ambitious, but possible through the invention of hyperlinks.

Govpulse.us

Source: Govpulse.us, 2009

To the average US citizen it can often seem that their government works in leaps and bounds, with new legislation or debates on legislation leaping to the fore. Yet every day the thousands of employees of the U.S Government go to work for the people of the country. Each day agencies release hundreds of proposed rules and regulations, meeting notices, final rules, and changes to existing rules in the form of the Federal Register. However in their current format they are difficult to find and to process in meaningful ways.

govpulse was built to address this problem and open the doors of government to the people they work for. By making such documents as the Federal Register searchable, more accessible and easier to digest, govepulse seeks to encourage every citizen to become more involved in the workings of their government and make their voice heard on the things that matter to them, from the smallest to the largest issues.

Blue-Green Coalitions: Fighting for the Right to Know

Source: Brian Mayer, NEW SOLUTIONS: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy, Volume 19, Number 1, 2009
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
The fight for information on the use, storage, and release of toxic substances in and from workplaces has been often referred to as the struggle for the right to know. The frustration of occupational safety-and-health activists in trying to obtain information on product names and potential risks closely mirrors that uphill struggle to access information from the state and industry faced by environmental activists. Given the similarities between the two situations, collaboration on the right to know produced a formidable alliance between the two movements–especially in New Jersey, where the dense population and the close proximity of industry to that population produced a powerful blend of anti-toxics and pro-union activism that redefined the relationship between blues and greens. This blue-green coalition, the New Jersey Work Environment Council, has existed since the 1980s and has continuously led the fight for safer workplaces and a cleaner environment by building bridges between labor groups and environmental activists.

Accessing Government: How difficult is it?

Source: Terry Pastika, Natalie Brouwer, Midwest Democracy Network, 2008

From the press release:
While every state in the nation has laws that require public access to government records and meetings, in five Midwestern states that were recently analyzed, documents are often kept secret and doors can remain tightly closed.

According to a study released by the Citizen Advocacy Center, open government laws in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota have systemic barriers that chill public participation and access to government, which weakens our democratic system designed to be by, for and of the people.

Transparency, Performance Management, And The Public Trust

Source: Public Manager, Volume 38, Number 1, Spring 2009
(subscription required)

This Forum contains the following articles:

– Introduction – Cal Clark and Don-terry Veal
This introduction opens a forum whose articles have been adapted from the Symposium on Advancing Excellence and Public Trust in Government that was held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on September 17, 2007. The forum examines how promoting greater transparency and measuring performance can help restore America’s trust in the public sector.

– Bringing Transparency to Municipal Budgets – Irene Rubin
Budgeting certainly reflects reality, but this is often hard to see. The “telephone directory” approach often taken overwhelms its audience with page after page of data without emphasizing the important information. Consequently, although the budget contains the key facts and figures, the audience can’t discern them, which creates a sense of unreality. Municipal budgeting tends to be incredibly detailed but very unrevealing.

– Using the Internet to Make State Budgets Transparent – Sandra Fabry
To achieve accountability, government expenditures should be transparent and accessible. After all, the consent of the governed from which government derives its just powers is much more meaningful if it is informed. In today’s environment, we need a new standard of access because much of the fiscal information is available to the public due to sunshine laws at the state and federal levels. However, being subject to, say, the Freedom of Information Act doesn’t necessarily mean easy access.

– Measuring Government Performance to Promote Transparency – Richard Greene
The Government Performance Project is an effort funded by (and now within) the Pew Center on the States that examines each of the fifty state governments every three years in four major areas of management: human resources, infrastructure, strategic planning, and performance measurement.

– Targeted Transparency – David Weil
Transparency is a fundamental component of democratic government. It concerns the right of citizens to know about the activities of their government. Transparency policies have expanded to protect against institutional corruption, a notion that underlies Louis Brandeis’s famous quote: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

– Transparency, Governance, and Civic Engagement – Christopher Hoene
This article opines that it’s not enough to just consider transparency in a budgeting sense. Planning and setting priorities, and then making the budget fit accordingly, is more important. Our system of public finance is broken. We’re making choices about services that everybody needs using revenue and finance mechanisms based on nineteenth and twentieth century economies. We’re in a twenty-first century economy that is creating wealth in many new and different ways, such as the Internet, but we are not figuring out how to tap that wealth and make it contribute equitably.

Welcome to Public.Resource.Org!

Source: Public.Resource.Org, 2009

Public.Resource.Org is a new non-profit dedicated to the creation of public works projects on the Internet. Our initial area of focus is increasing the flow of information in both directions between the U.S. government and people.
See also:
Bulk access to opinions of the U.S. Courts of Appeal.
Public safety codes and administrative codes.
California Code of Regulations is now available.
– FedFlix was a joint venture with the National Technical Information Service (NTIS). Each month they send us government videotapes. We upload them to the Internet Archive and YouTube, then send the government back their videotapes and a digital copy for their files. No cost to them, more data for all of us. Enjoy!

FOIA Litigation for Accountable Government

Source: Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2009

EFF’s FOIA Litigation for Accountable Government (FLAG) Project aims to expose the government’s expanding use of new technologies that invade Americans’ privacy. Through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the project helps to protect individual liberties and hold the government accountable.

National security and law enforcement demand some level of government secrecy, but too much secrecy enables abuses of power. The Justice Department’s cell phone tracking without probable cause, the NSA’s illegal spying program, and other recent privacy-invasive initiatives make this clear.

You can search through all of EFF’s FOIA documents using the FOIA Document Search Engine.

Florida — Commission on Open Government Reform — Final Report

Source: Commission on Open Government Reform, January 2009

Generally considered a leader in the area of open government, Florida has a long history of providing access to the meetings and records of its government. This rich tradition of open government culminated in the 1992 general election when Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment guaranteeing access to the records of all three branches of state government and to the meetings of the collegial bodies of state agencies and local governments at which public business is to be transacted or discussed.

Although both the open meetings law and the public records law have been amended since first enacted and some reforms made, never in Florida’s long history of open government have both laws been reviewed in their entirety. As a result, there are inconsistencies and redundancies in the law, and some argue that the state’s open government laws have failed to keep pace with today’s technology, resulting in an erosion of the public’s constitutional right of access to government meetings and records.

Government Data and the Invisible Hand

Source: David Robinson, Harlan Yu, William P. Zeller, Edward W. Felten, Yale Journal of Law & Technology, Vol. 11, 2008

From the abstract:
If the next Presidential administration really wants to embrace the potential of Internet-enabled government transparency, it should follow a counter-intuitive but ultimately compelling strategy: reduce the federal role in presenting important government information to citizens. Today, government bodies consider their own websites to be a higher priority than technical infrastructures that open up their data for others to use. We argue that this understanding is a mistake. It would be preferable for government to understand providing reusable data, rather than providing websites, as the core of its online publishing responsibility.

Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, we argue that the executive branch should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that exposes the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data. The best way to ensure that the government allows private parties to compete on equal terms in the provision of government data is to require that federal websites themselves use the same open systems for accessing the underlying data as they make available to the public at large.

Reinventing Transparent Government

Source: Patrick Radden, The Century Foundation, September 10, 2008

From the summary:
In “Reinventing Transparent Government,” a new policy brief for The Century Foundation, Patrick Radden Keefe, fellow and expert on national security and civil liberties issues, calls for rolling back the secrecy of the Bush years and restoring transparency and accountability to American government. In the brief, Keefe explores the broad range of areas in which the United States government has adopted a policy of reflexive secrecy in recent years, and examines the extent to which that posture represents a departure from the American tradition of accountable, transparent government. Keefe makes five concrete proposals for specific changes a new administration could make to usher in a new era of sound, open, responsible government, and invokes James Madison’s admonition that “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce, or a Tragedy, or perhaps both.”