On my first day working in the DC office of OpenTheGovernment.org I was introduced to the security system, access code 7466. Colleagues seem bemused that I did not immediately recognize this as July 4, 1966, date of the initial passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Since then the code has changed and I have learned more than I ever expected to know about FOIA. Truth to tell, I have come to have enormous respect for this fundamental legislation, the bulwark of our nation’s protection of the people’s right to know.
Though some would say that FOIA is more honored in the breach than in the observance I worry much more about the fact that, for far too many of us, FOIA has come to be synonymous with national security, the province of attorneys and journalists, a mysterious process too pricey, too arcane, too complex for mere mortals. In truth, FOIA is an indispensable tool that is available and accessible to the rest of us, which is why we need to engage in the ongoing hoopla surrounding FOIA as it approaches middle age….
Like most Americans FOIA, at the tender age of 48, is not about to sit on the shelf. Instead, FOIA is hot, ready to strut its stuff, retool, reinvent, whatever it takes to embrace the political and technological challenges of the day. FOIA is taking its turn on center stage. Everyone goes through this as the Big 5-0 approaches – not a bad idea for laws to pause for reflection at the same pace.
The 48th birthday celebration for FOIA blasted off on June 24 when U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014.( http://www.leahy.senate.gov/download/alb14471 )
The intent of the bill is to significantly restrict the government’s ability to withhold information by citing what is known by insiders as the “withhold it because you want to” exemption. The act also strengthens the FOIA ombuds Office of Government Services (OGIS), promotes more proactive online access to government information, and pushes back on agency attempts to weaken the 2007 Open Government Act amendments. An earlier, less stringent, bill has already passed unanimously in the House. (FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act, February 2014)
Response to the Leahy-Cornyn proposal is immediate and generally positive from the open government community. A quick google search will disclose comments by a host of advocacy groups of every stripe. What matters now is that elected representatives understand that strengthening FOIA—the backbone of transparency and accountability — matters to “the rest of us,” the folks who care about food safety or the impact of fracking or the new EPA standards or transportation or children’s health or toxins or transportation safety or…..
It’s easy enough to brush up a bit on all things FOIA:
*If you’re the sort who likes to start from the beginning, check out the official FOIA website at http://www.foia.gov/index.html– keep in mind FOIA is a work in progress so if you see ways it can be improved, now’s the time….
*For specifics on FOIA at work, check out the National Security Archive, the unflappable agency that just keeps digging to unearth records long shielded by policy and practice from the public eye. http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/the_archive.html
*To learn about examples of the impact of FOIA as the force behind the headlines, take a look at the “FOIA Files” compiled by Sunshine in Government – see http://sunshineingovernment.org/wordpress/?page_id=1533
*The public ombuds within government is the Office of Government Services, a major target of the Leahy-Cornyn bill – Learn about OGIS at https://ogis.archives.gov
*More to the point, engage in the process. The folks at the National Archives and Records Administration, a major player in all things FOIA, are currently re-thinking their role and processes. It’s fun to join the discussion of the real people who really do the real work of tending the daily business of open government http://blogs.archives.gov/foiablog/2014/06/25/foia-advisory-committee-begins-setting-priorities/)
*If you’re the voyeuristic type that just can’t get enough of this stuff, check out The Government Attic, a treasure trove of stuff that’s been gathering dust all these years, now released through the FOIA process – today’s favorite, the FBI files back when they had time to worry about “The Untouchables” (http://www.governmentattic.org/11docs/FBIfilesUntouchablesTV_1948-1962.pdf}
The point is, let your fingers do the walking, and you’ll be a FOIA fan in short order.
As a FOIA fan you’ll need time to prep for the celebration of FOIA’s happy birthday on the 4th. You’ll want to mention to the visiting President that transparency matters to Minnesotans. You’ll need to get up to speed and engage in the buzz that FOIA is getting these days.
Take away – A lot has changed since July 4, 1966. Access to information by and about our government matters more than ever – we the people are increasingly responsible to be independent seekers and evaluators of resources, to hold our government accountable. By default information access, open government, accountability will fall into the abyss of “everybody’s business and nobody’s business.”
As citizens it is a privilege to commemorate the birthday of FOIA by paying attention! Those who shaped the fundamentals of our independence had a lot of confidence that we the people were the best deciders and that our decisions rest on good information by and about the government. FOIA matters to all of us.
Besides, when approached in the proper spirit, birthday celebrations, even for monumental laws approaching 50, can end up being pretty entertaining.