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The most recent quarterly meeting of NARA’s FOIA Advisory Committee (of which I’m a member) occurred last friday (12/6/19). You can watch the entire meeting as it was live-streamed on NARA’s YouTube channel (below).
I consider myself fortunate to be able to work with this committee — 1/2 of its members are FOIA officers at federal agencies, and 1/2 are from various parts of the requester community: academics, lawyers, FOIA activists and myself the lone librarian. The committee works to identify challenges that exist with the FOIA and then issues official recommendations to improve FOIA at the end of each term. For the 2018-2020 term, the committee has broken out into three subcommittees — Records Management (of which I’m a member), Time/Volume, and Vision — and we’ve been working diligently on recommendations for our final report. You can see in the links below what each of the subcommittees has chosen to focus in on to make FOIA better.
The committee is currently working on quite a few sticky issues, not least of which are “release to one release to all” — which was developed by the Obama administration in 2016 but is still “under consideration” by the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the Department of Justice — as well as the 2 issues closest to my librarian heart, a central FOIA repository and FOIA documents in both human-readable and machine-actionable formats (draft recommendations 8 and 9 of the records management subcommittee).
- Time/Volume Subcommittee Proposed Recommendations to the 2018-2020 FOIA Advisory Committee
- Records Management Subcommittee Proposed Recommendations # 8 and 9 to the 2018-2020 FOIA Advisory Committee
- Vision Subcommittee Proposed Recommendations to the 2018-2020 FOIA Advisory Committee
- FOIA Officer Survey Results DRAFT – December 4, 2019
- FOIA Requester Survey Results DRAFT – December 4, 2019
I’d like to give a shout-out to tireless public open government advocate Alex Howard (formerly from Sunlight Foundation) who has shown up at each of our meetings and has given substantive input, comments and critiques during the public comment portion of each meeting and via live-blog and twitter during each meeting. We should have more advocates like Alex who not only keeps the government’s feet to the open-government fire but also gives positive, actionable policy and technical advice to achieve real advances in FOIA and government transparency generally.
In December 2016, President Obama also ordered the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to make FOIA a “cross agency priority” goal. Unfortunately, the Trump administration removed the Cross Agency Priority Goal for FOIA on Performance.gov without notice.
An administration that’s serious about improving public access to our records and being good stewards of taxpayer dollars and public information would restore said goal, perhaps as a commitment in some sort of comprehensive “national action plan on open government.”
While the FOIA Advisory Committee is full of people working in good faith to improve how sunshine in government works for the public, this administration has reversed or neglected many of the open government policies or programs of the past decade and weaponized transparency through selective disclosures.
As has been the case for years, it falls to Congress to perform oversight of the FOIA and ensure that public access to public information continues to improve through implementation of the FOIA reforms President Obama signed into law in December 2016 and the open government bill President Trump signed into law in January 2019.
Happy Sunshine Week, the week where we celebrate government transparency, FOIA and all things open government information! There’s lots happening this week including the upcoming 1/2 day live and streaming celebration at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). But there’s also work to be done. Evidently, appropriators are holding up the smart, pro-transparency “HR 736 Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act” scheduled for a floor vote on Tuesday. Contact your Representative today and tell them to pass this important act!
There’s too much news happening this week to list it all — make sure to subscribe to the First Branch Forecast weekly newsletter published by Daniel Schuman and his crack team at Demand Progress to keep up to date! — but I did want to highlight the good news coming out of the LIBRARY of Congress. Slowly but surely, they’re expanding the number of Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports being published on their site crsreports.congress.gov. They still don’t have the coverage of EveryCRSReport.com which includes 14,742 CRS reports (and still growing) but LoC is getting there so good on them. Celebrate Sunshine Week by leaving LoC a comment and contacting your Representative to tell them to vote for “HR 736 Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act”. Sunshine is the best disinfectant!!
Since launching, we’ve added hundreds of new reports and are working hard to include the back catalog of older CRS reports – a process that is expected to be complete later this month. Today, you can access more than 2,300 reports on topics ranging from the Small Business Administration to farm policy.
Starting this week, the Library is making additional product types available on the site. The site now includes In Focus products, which are two-page executive level briefing documents on a range of policy issues. For example, recent topics include military medical malpractice and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Block Grant. Another newly-added product type is the Insight, which provides short-form analysis on fast moving or more focused issues. Examples of topics include volcano early warning systems and Congressional Member Organizations. Users can filter by product type using the faceted search on the left hand of the search results page.
The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) reports that the U.S. will no longer seek validation by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global anti-corruption effort to bring openness and accountability to the oil, gas and mining sectors.
- Administration Sounds Death Knell for Transparency Initiative, by Mia Steinle POGO press release (March 17, 2017).
A Department of the Interior official confirmed in a March 9 phone call that the United States is withdrawing its efforts to be validated under the EITI Standard. The standard requires companies and governments to disclose the payments they make and receive for extracting oil, gas and minerals. The goal of the initiative is to ensure citizens and governments are getting their fair share of revenues from natural resource extraction.
Under the Standard governments disclose how much they receive from extractive companies operating in their country and these companies disclose how much they pay. Governments sign up to implement the EITI Standard and must meet seven requirements. Then a Validator commissioned by the EITI International Secretariat assesses whether or not the country successfully implemented the EITI Standard.
The U.S. committed to join EITI in 2011 with the goal of ensuring that taxpayers are receiving every dollar due for extraction of natural resources. The United States had been working towards complying with the standard since 2012. The U.S. formally became an EITI candidate in 2014 when the EITI International Board approved USEITI’s candidacy application.
The website of the U.S. EITI is still available, but it appears no new information has been added to it since the inauguration. Its 2016 report is still available online. The only tweet from @useiti_doi since the inauguration has been one welcoming the new Department of the Interior Secretary.
The Poynter Institute reports that bureau chiefs from major news organizations sent a letter to the State Department protesting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision to travel to Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo without any traveling press.
- Bureau chiefs ‘deeply concerned’ that Rex Tillerson is ditching the press on Asia trip, by Benjamin Mullin Poynter (March 9, 2017).
CNN’s Jake Tapper called the trip "insulting to any American who is looking for anything but a state-run version of events."
A dozen news organizations signed the letter including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the wire services, Fox News, CNN, NPR, the BBC, Voice of America, the Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, and the Agence France-Presse
The news out of Washington DC is not good if you’re a government information librarian or an open government advocate. In the last 24 hours, the Trump administration has put a freeze on EPA grants and contracts and ordered USDA science researchers to “cease publication of ‘outward facing’ documents and news releases.” Not only does this have a massive negative impact on scientific research — and the thousands of researchers and students who rely on federal grants to do their work and live on a day-to-day basis! — but it also shuts the door on our government’s communication with its citizens. Stay tuned and aware that this is going on, and by all means contact your representatives to let them know that this is NOT all right!