Recommendations on improving implementation of the Freedom of Information Act and data transparency

Today, our director provided brief remarks in response to the White House’s request for feedback from the public about proposed federal commitments to improve public access to data. The following written recommendations are the (longer) version of that public comment, with specific tactical and strategic recommendations for improving administration of the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Government Data Act, which codified the U.S. government’s obligations to act as a good steward of public information.

  • Recognize the importance of FOIA and celebrate the civil servants who carry it out beyond an awards ceremony during Sunshine Week. Ask FOIA officers about how FOIA could be improved, with an award to incent participation.
  • Issue a draft of long-overdue guidance on Title II of Open Government Data Act, as mandated by Congress and recommended by the Chief Data Officers Council and every nonprofit that works on open governance : hand solicit comment from stakeholders before issuing a final product.
  • Advise agencies that all publication of public records online (including on 300+ FOIA reading rooms!) must be as disclosed structured data. Appoint a U.S. Chief Data Officer who is accountable for implementing the OGDA and harmonizing it with FOIA. Dedicate USDS and 18F teams to assisting FOIA officers with modernization and create an interagency working group connecting the CDO Council, CIO Council, & FOIA Officers Council.
  • Review and implement the recommendations of the U.S. FOIA Advisory Council.
  • Issue a public statement that FOIAOnline.gov is sunsetting in 2023, with timelines and points of contact. Direct every affected agency to do what DHS has done to engage stakeholders and the requestor community about the transition, ensuring all affected requests are picked up, people can download records, and no one’s right to access info will be thwarted as a result. The White House, DoJ and GSA can and should adopt & adapt open source code used in New York City as an option for agencies considering migration.
  • Convene the U.S. Digital Service, 18F, and the nation’s civic tech community to work on improving FOIA.gov using the same human-centric design principles you’ve applied to service delivery elsewhere. Make sure FOIA.gov users can search for records across reading rooms, Data.gov, USASpending.gov, and other federal data repositories. Make FOIA.gov a platform with an application programming interface, with a defined schema for FOIA requests, so that requestors can check the status of FOIA requests using a default US government client or third party services. The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 specifically directs OMB to make such improvements: please evaluate whether the 3 million dollars OIP has allocated to building “a wizard” for FOIA.gov is an effective use of taxpayer dollars that will improve administration of the FOIA for requestors. Is it being built WITH people who use that site?
  • Restore a Cross-Agency Priority goal for FOIA. Advise agencies to follow FOIA Advisory Committee recommendations and stand up a public dashboard tracking changes at a new White House.gov/open government website. Start tracking spending on FOIA and increase funding to meet the demand.
  • Direct the Department of Justice to finally roll out the “release-to-one, release-to-all” policy for FOIA that was piloted at the direction of President Obama. Hold USAG Garland and his deputies accountable for doing what the last administration refused to do. Direct the FOIA Officers Council to disclose the products of their work on FOIA.gov.
  • Collect and publish data on which records are being purchased under the FOIA by commercial enterprises for non-oversight purposes and determine whether that data can or should be proactively disclosed.
  • Fund and build dedicated, secure online services for people to gain access to immigration records and veterans records, instead of forcing them to use the FOIA.
  • Relaunch Ethics.gov with open data of ethics disclosures across the federal government.
  • Formally endorse a bill to reform the PACER system and invite the Supreme Court to participate in the Open Government Partnership by making a commitment to provide every American with free, open access to laws and court records.
  • Formally create a Federal Advisory Committee for open government modeled on the President’s Council of Science and Technology (PCAST) that’s accountable for implementing OGP and Summit for Democracy commitments and relevant federal laws. Hold monthly interagency meetings and quarterly public forums that inform the public and press about the status commitments.
  • Re-issue a revised Open Government Directive that requires agencies to submit a plan on press freedom, disclosure, scientific and information integrity guidance. Refresh all agency open government plans and pages. Connect transparency and accountability explicitly to the administration’s national anti-corruption strategy, democracy commitments, and an explicit embrace of good governance, all as a part of a larger strategy to rebuild trust over time using participatory platforms. House this work on a rebooted WhiteHouse.gov/open linked to open.usa.gov and to the Open Government Partnership. Begin cataloging & highlighting open government activities across agencies, not just participation & collaboration on GSA websites.

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