Open Government Advocates Say Obama Progress on FOIA Not Enough


WASHINGTON—Five years after President Barack Obama promised to make the government more transparent, open government advocates praised his progress while outlining several areas for improvement at a congressional hearing Wednesday.

"Our optimism grew when President Obama proclaimed that his administration would be the most transparent administration ever,” said Kevin M. Goldberg, an attorney representing the American Society of News Editors and the Sunshine in Government Initiative.

But the administration has not moved fast enough to make it easier for people to obtain public information from the government, he said.

The Obama administration’s commitment to transparency has come under attack in recent weeks. Last week, Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) filibustered new CIA director John O. Brennan’s confirmation in an attempt to force the administration to release information about its drone policy.

In responding to document requests, the Obama administration has relied heavily on partial releases of information, Sean Moulton, director of open government policy at the Center for Effective Government, said at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

Full releases of documents declined to the lowest level on record in 2012, to just under 41 percent of responses to requests, he said. “We could be talking about releasing 99 documents out of 100 or withholding 99 documents and only releasing one. Both would be a partial grant," Moulton said.

Government officials at the hearing said they were aware of the frustration of document requesters.

“My office hears too often from requesters who cannot get a simple answer to when they can expect to get a reply from the agency,” said Miriam M. Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Services, the federal FOIA ombudsman. “At the same time, many requesters may not appreciate the challenges that agency FOIA professionals face in dealing with complex requests and voluminous records.”

Melanie Pustay, director of the Department of Justice Office of Information Policy, told senators that in 2012, the government reduced by 14 percent the overall requests backlog. In 2012, 94 percent of requests for information held by the government were completed with a full or partial release of documents, she said.

The Office of Government Information Services has dramatically improved the freedom of information process, said Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, an organization founded by journalists and scholars to push back against government secrecy.

But he pointed to an audit by his organization, which found that 53 out of 100 federal agencies have not changed their freedom of information regulations to meet the requirements of the OPEN Government Act of 2007. The Justice Department has been particularly problematic, he said.

"I think the Justice Department might be the only player in the entire freedom of information environment that thinks new regulations were just optional," he said.

The government needs an institutional shift in their approach to Freedom of Information Act requests to think more about customer service, said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), co-author of the OPEN Government Act of 2007.

“This is an obligation of government officials, not a nuisance to be tolerated,” he said at the hearing.

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