President Barack Obama signed into law on June 30th a long sought after upgrade of the Freedom of Information Act known as the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. The altered legislation codifies a “presumption of openness,” strengthening the proactive disclosure of information in digital format thereby making “open data” immediately accessible, by default, on-line, at no charge, in formats conductive to electronic processing. A White House spokesperson noted the President’s support of FOIA is ongoing, administered with a clear presumption: “in the face of doubt, openness prevails.”
The passage of this bipartisan bill was applauded on both sides of the aisle. One cliché caught my attention “The right to speak and the right to print, without the right to know, are pretty empty.” The Department of Justice disagreed, auguring ‘separation of power’ concerns.
Will the revised legislation make a difference? Yes, but only if the “hide and seek” games that have been going on for years stop. Currently many requests linger for years, die on the vine, or are denied with no valid explanation provided.
In 2015, some 770,000 requests were submitted applicable to the federal government operations alone. Unfortunately, the updated act provides no additional funding as the demand for information increases.
The updated act applies only to the next administration, removing the option for the next president to write it away with the sweep of an executive pen. On that count, we have to hope that whoever is in office (now and when) will invest more political capital carrying out the initiatives presented in the legislation.
Congress has not subjected itself to FOIA. Good government adversary groups argue extending FOIA to Congress would serve as another important step in increasing government transparency. Don’t hold your breath.
Last, but not least, to quote Wayne Knight (Newman, the postman on the Seinfeld show) “when you control the mail, you control information.” Sage advice indeed. A word of caution. Request’s when honored, only open the door of a learning process. Do not overlook the potential evident to address what you have in mind. Good luck if you traverse this path.