The forecast from this year’s National “Sunshine Week,” which annually focuses on issues of freedom of information and transparency in government, is “partly cloudy, with some sun and some storms.”
On one hand, an Associated Press analysis released during the week found that the Obama administration in 2012 answered the highest number during his time in office of FOI requests for “government documents, emails, photographs and more, and it slightly reduced its backlog of requests from previous years.”
But the same analysis shows the administration more often cited legal provisions allowing the government to keep records or parts of its records secret, especially a rule intended to protect national security – though some say that may just mean there were more requests for those kinds of documents.
AP also said that officials were making more use of exceptions in FOI laws that protect the “behind-the-scenes decision-making process.”
And the private National Security Archive, at George Washington University, issued a report on March 11 noting that only about one-half of 90 agencies ordered by President Obama to upgrade their responses to information requests and foster overall openness have “actually made concrete changes in their FIOA procedures.”
So what is the impact on you or me?
Well, first it means that even though President Obama’s first act in office was to declare a new effort to make government more transparent, some things have not changed.
If you write to a federal agency for information not generally available, it probably means at least as long a wait as in previous years and administrations – multiple years.
The AP report said that in 2012, “the government generally took longer to answer requests. Some agencies, such as the Health and Human Services Department, took less time than the previous year to turn over files. But at the State Department, for example, even urgent requests submitted under a fast-track system covering breaking news or events where a person’s life was at stake took an average two years to wait for files.
And there’s a new bit of irony for those in the information business. Journalists have had to wait even longer for their freedom of information requests to be granted. AP said that “the rate at which the government granted so-called expedited processing, which moves an urgent request to the front of the line for a speedy answer, fell from 24 percent in 2011 to 17 percent last year.” The CIA denied every such request last year, it said.
So in an era in which data is more easily accumulated, sorted, tracked, analyzed and accessed, the response times to our FOI requests remain firmly rooted in the days of paper, manila folders and file cabinets.
The lifeblood of a representative democracy is information, so that citizens can make informed decisions at the ballot box about policy, spending, performance and goals. For information to be useful, it needs to be accurate, complete and timely, particularly for financial data in times when budget battles seemingly are being fought every few months.
Some time ago, Obama also publicly renounced an earlier administration’s doctrine that became enshrined in the post-Sept. 11attacks era. The president declared that the posture of agencies toward FOI requests should return to “open-until-closed,” instead of the opposite approach in the name of national security.
But a government “door” that opens, on average, two years after citizens knock on it means that those seeking information on public programs paid for by public funds are spending a long time waiting “in the cold” – and that’s not good for those in charge of our public policy or for democracy.
Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.