Obama Can Use His Tech Ideas to Enhance Federal Transparency

Posted December 12, 2008 at 3:36pm

The blogs are buzzing about the technology that President-elect Barack Obama is expected to bring to the White House. The transition team already is posting updates to YouTube and inviting ideas through its Web site, Change.gov. While Obama is showing how to use technology to communicate with the American public, there are a few common-sense steps Congress and the new administration should take to strengthen transparency in the executive branch.

Ironically, while so much information is available online, the federal government has moved backward in recent years on making information in documents and data available to the public. Federal agencies take longer to respond to requests for information filed under the Freedom of Information Act, despite drops in requests. The Bush administration urged agencies to withhold information whenever legally possible. The federal government still offers no online mediation services to resolve document disputes, even though last year, Congress created the Office of Government Information Services to do just that. And agencies and Members of Congress continue proposing loopholes to FOIA with little discussion or debate.

Despite these problems, FOIA’s promise remains powerful. Recently, FOIA has helped put a human face on high suicide rates in the military, identify Medal of Valor awards decorating the biographies of individuals who never received them, and uncover overdue bridge safety inspections.

The Obama administration, with specific appropriations and active oversight from Congress, should move forward with opening online mediation services to help resolve FOIA disputes between requesters and agencies. Imagine FOIA requests stalled for years being resolved within days or even hours. As part of FOIA reforms enacted last year, Congress created the Office of Government Information Services to provide fair and impartial mediation services.

Congressional sponsors placed OGIS within the National Archives to embrace the Archives’ mission of disclosure and insulate the office from inappropriate political influence from the White House or any agency. The Bush administration’s budget proposal would have eliminated the office, but appropriators rejected the proposal. Congress and the Obama administration should come together to fully fund this landmark in the federal FOIA.

Second, Congress must stop undermining FOIA with new statutory exemptions slipped into legislation without notice and debate.

Each year, Members of Congress propose adding to the more than 200 exemptions from disclosure already on the books. A proposed federal biodefense agency would have been completely exempted from FOIA. (Even the CIA is subject to FOIA.) Proposals to build high-speed rail lines to compete with Amtrak would have been put beyond the public’s reach. (These bids include not-so-minor details such as impacts on private property and legal obstacles.) Even the president’s proposal to eliminate the FOIA ombudsman was buried in a budget appendix. Luckily, we found these, but Congressional committees overseeing FOIA should have a chance to review these provisions. The Obama administration should ban agencies from proposing or endorsing unnecessary statutory exemptions from disclosure that they can’t publicly justify.

Third, the administration should reassert the presumption of disclosure that Congress wrote into FOIA. Obama should establish as policy that federal agencies should disclose information unless disclosure would create a “foreseeable harm” to an interest protected by the express exemptions in FOIA. Congress should ensure agencies follow these standards with rigorous oversight, including reviews by the Government Accountability Office.

Technology is making it easier for the government to ensure the public can access the information needed to hold government accountable and make informed choices. Congress should take an active part in ensuring federal agencies are open and accessible.

Rick Blum is coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups committed to promoting policies that ensure the government is accessible, accountable and open.