On Jan. 11, legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced changes to the Freedom of Information Act with a bill that attempts to untangle the cumbersome process for government record requests — changes that require authorities to digitize responses and be accountable for denied and delayed requests.
The bipartisan bill, introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., as the FOIA Act, is arguably the most comprehensive facelift the bill has seen since it was enacted in 1966. Among its key stipulations, amendments call for a single online request portal for all federal agencies, digital publication of commonly requested documents, and an annual — and publicly available — FOIA compliance report for each agency.
Legislators added pressure to comply by striking at agencies’ pocket books. The law goes as far as denying agencies' processing fees for requests if they fail to meet FOIA’s response deadlines — of 20 working days for basic requests and 30 working days for lengthier requests.
The new regulations, which now go onto the U.S. Senate for final approval, seek to plug sizable FOIA loopholes that agencies have exploited for years. In a hearing, legislators listened to testimonies saying some requests had gone unanswered for more than a year, and average wait times in certain agencies like the U.S. Department of State exceeded three months for simple petitions. This analysis was confirmed in a study conducted by Syracuse University that tested agencies on responsiveness. In four months, researchers reported that two-thirds of the federal agencies they’d contacted had not answered simple document requests.
A scathing report submitted by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform also noted a track record of excessive delays, unwarranted redactions and spurious uses of FOIA exemptions by officials. Excuses listed included multiple notices for extensions, dismissing requests as vague or too broadly worded, or hiking processing fees so information is virtually unattainable for average citizens.
Also in the report, Republicans accused the Obama administration of hindering requests with unnecessary White House reviews and a culture that encouraged secrecy.
But the White House can point to many transparency initiatives: In 2013, Obama issued an executive order calling for agencies to publish non-classified data online and has continued to develop Data.gov, the first national open data portal that was launched in 2009; and other White House initiatives include support for 18F, the federal digital service that currently is engineering an open source FOIA site for agencies on GitHub.
One of the most significant displays of bipartisan transparency, however, occurred in 2014 when Obama approved the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, a bill introduced by Issa and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., that mandates agencies publish all expenditures online at USAspending.gov by 2018.
And now comes the updated FOIA Act — welcome news for transparency advocates, researchers and journalists who have endured such frustrations and setbacks. The Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency group, praised the House passage in a Jan. 12 blog post, where it said that while the bill may need some adjustment to handle a glut of commercial requests from information resellers, it still institutes a much needed overhaul.
"It is heartening that the House of Representatives remains committed to improving the Freedom of Information Act,” Matt Rumsey, a Sunlight senior policy analyst, told Government Technology. “Passage of the FOIA Act with broad bipartisan support brings us one step closer to a more modern, accountable and open government."
Similarly, civic tech startup NextRequest, which provides cloud-based open records sites for governments, lauded the action as a fundamental shift to modernize agencies with 21st-century tech. Co-founder and CEO Tamara Manik-Perlman said the bill’s passage affirmed the work her team has invested in launching sites for cities and other jurisdictions across the U.S. The startup is one of the first to innovate the service locally and has a dashboard that automates much of the management for citizens and governments with status updates and downloadable documents. The technology has been proven in the cities of Oakland, Calif., Providence, R.I., and others.
“Through our work at NextRequest, we've seen that public records are a major pain point both for requesters and for government agencies, and that the smart use of technology can bring FOIA into the Digital Age by making the process transparent and efficient for everyone,” Manik-Perlman said.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.