The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) turned 50 on July 4, 2016. Each week of the 50 Days of FOIA campaign leading up to the anniversary highlighted a different theme, such as success stories, technology advances, negative or obstructive agency responses, and legislative reform ideas, around which journalists and advocacy groups were encouraged to share their FOIA stories.
The ideal celebratory event was the presidential signing of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 (S 337) on June 30, 2016. The act, which passed in the Senate and the House of Representatives and was presented to President Barack Obama on June 22, 2016, amends FOIA with conditions such as:
- require federal agencies to make their disclosable records and documents available for public inspection in an electronic format
- prohibit an agency from charging a fee for providing records if the agency misses a deadline for complying with [a] FOIA request unless unusual circumstances apply and more than 5,000 pages are necessary to respond to the request
- limit the FOIA exemption for agency communications to allow the disclosure of agency records created 25 years or more before the date of a FOIA request
- establish a Chief FOIA Officers Council to develop recommendations for increasing compliance and efficiency in responding to FOIA requests, disseminating information about agency experiences, identifying, developing, and coordinating initiatives to increase transparency and compliance, and promoting performance measures to ensure agency compliance with FOIA requirements
Perhaps the most important provision of the updated FOIA is the requirement that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) not only develops, but also ensures the operation of a single online portal that allows the public to submit requests for records to any agency. (There is no mention of the public’s ability to track FOIA requests once they have been submitted.)
18F recently launched openFOIA, a site designed to enhance the existing FOIA.gov, and it helped the Department of Justice build a new FOIA request hub. openFOIA permits the public to connect with an agency to submit a FOIA request, browse existing FOIA requests to determine whether certain documents have been requested already, and estimate how long it might take for a request to be fulfilled (based on the average number of working days it takes for that agency to complete FOIA requests). 18F is requesting feedback on the site, encouraging the public to suggest improvements (via email@example.com).
FOIA.gov allows users to understand data about FOIA requests and responses, as well as access annual FOIA reports filed by agencies. One often-overlooked resource on FOIA.gov is a list of FOIA contacts at each agency. The new FOIA hub features links to some spectacularly innovative open source tools.
The federal government isn’t the only innovator when it comes to FOIA tools. FOIA Mapper, developed with funding from the Knight Prototype Fund, allows users to search government agency record systems by topic as well as FOIA logs (which show who requested what type of information on what date, as well as if or when the material was delivered). The browse feature allows users to click on an agency or sub-agency and see average wait times for both simple and complex requests, the percentage of requests denied, and the amount of backlog, plus the FOIA contact at the agency.
A transparency milestone occurred when the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) began publishing XML-formatted nonprofit tax returns (Form 990s) on Amazon Web Services (AWS). While this development makes the Form 990s arguably more accessible to the public—coming directly from a federal agency rather than relying on a third-party, such as GuideStar or Foundation Center’s 990 Finder—the next tasks include making sure organizations file their Form 990s in a timely fashion with accurate information and requiring nonprofits to file annual forms electronically so that the machine-readable data can be compiled and analyzed. Today, you must open scanned images (PDFs) of the annual filings. Another task is rethinking what data from the forms would be helpful in understanding an organization’s operations so that we don’t need a Senate Committee on the Judiciary investigation and a 300-page report to learn about overhead expenses in relation to relief activities, as was recently the case with American Red Cross relief efforts in Haiti.
On the considerably less sunny side of the street, the House of Representatives passed a bill eliminating the requirement that nonprofit organizations disclose the names of their donors to the IRS. “Currently, individuals who contribute $5,000 or more to 501(c) groups must report their names and amounts donated to the IRS so the agency can monitor possible charity fraud and enforce tax laws; however, this information, compiled in ‘Schedule B’ sections of annual tax returns, is never released to the public. H.R. 5053 … would change this so donors to nonprofits wouldn’t have to report anything at all; in fact, the IRS would be blocked from learning anything about the identities of people who contribute money to nonprofit organizations,” according to the Sunlight Foundation.
The End of an Era (And the Beginning of Another)
As the Library of Congress bid farewell to the THOMAS website (which was replaced by Congress.gov) on July 5, 2016, there are reasons to be hopeful about the future of access to legislative information and the ability to influence and understand how laws are crafted and evolve. One significant example of progress enabled by technology is the Establishing Digital Interactive Transparency Act (EDIT Act) introduced by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) on June 15, 2016. According to Nextgov, it “would require congressional bills posted online to include a ‘track changes-style system’ showing all the tweaks made to legislation as it makes its way through Congress. … Stefanik’s bill would require the Library of Congress, within a year of the bill’s passage, to implement a track-changes system that would allow viewers to track revisions made to legislation within the same document.”