Michael Morisy co-founded MuckRock in 2010 to help modernize FOIA on the requester side. It has helped to file 30,000 FOIA requests at the federal, state, and local levels. Morisy said that there is a mismatch of FOIA resources and public expectations in the age of Siri and Alexa. He has five principles for engaging people in transparency issues:
- Make things (broadly) accessible. It’s also important that the FOIA submission process is easy for anyone to understand.
- Information should be where the public expects it to be (not buried in the site). Morisy noted the FBI’s Vault as a good example of agency proactivity, providing information without the need to file a FOIA request.
- Collaborative tradition should extend to the FOIA community. When someone is building a tool, invite others who are on the same journey to participate. For example, make requests, results, and rejections public.
- The transparency community struggles with iterative processes for site development. Morisy recommends that we celebrate gradual improvements and be willing to accept constructive criticism of what does or does not work. MuckRock has a “clone” feature that allows anyone to take what’s worked for one requester in one jurisdiction to use elsewhere.
- Transparency is essential to an informed democracy, so government agencies should be transparent about why something may be redacted or withheld.
The audience at the NARA event offered intelligent comments and questions throughout the afternoon, including the following:
- Local government email retention is subject to state laws. Now that there is a federal law requiring agencies to preserve email records, how can we get state legislators to support state archivists in retaining email as records?
- Should Congress be subject to FOIA? FOIA After 50 panelists were divided, but all indicated that the public should have access to Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports.
- One audience member asked about the new FOIA request portal. Morisy noted that MuckRock’s source code is open, and the organization would welcome it if those designing the new FOIA portal chose to use it.
Senator Receives James Madison Award
Each year during Sunshine Week, the American Library Association (ALA) presents the James Madison Award to individuals or groups for their efforts to champion, protect, and promote “open access to government information and the public’s right to know.” This year’s awardee, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), was celebrated on March 15 at a ceremony livestreamed from the Newseum in Washington, D.C. As ALA immediate past president Sari Feldman presented the senator with the award, she noted his track record of “pushing for truth” in government, protecting and strengthening “access to information by introducing legislation that brings it online to the public.”
In his remarks, Tester indicated there are several ways to improve transparency and accountability in government, including the following:
- He reintroduced the Public Online Information Act in the 115th Congress, “to require publicly available Government information held by the executive branch to be made available on the Internet.”
- Along with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Tester is starting a bipartisan Senate Transparency Caucus; there is already a House Transparency Caucus.
Tester insists that elected officials hold themselves accountable, and he advocates ending automatic pay raises for Congress and closing the revolving door between government and “K Street” (i.e., lobbyists). He models transparency by posting his daily schedule online and voluntarily filing his campaign finance reports online. He was a strong supporter of the Earmark Transparency Act—legislation that would have required “a single free public searchable website that specifies certain identifying information relating to each request by Members of Congress for congressionally directed spending items or limited tax or tariff benefits (congressional earmarks).”
In February 2017, Tester introduced the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act (S 298), requiring “Senate candidates to file designations, statements, and reports in electronic form,” and the Sunlight for Unaccountable Non-profits (SUN) Act (S 300), amending “the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to require that return information from tax-exempt organizations be made available in a searchable format and to provide the disclosure of the identity of contributors to certain tax-exempt organizations.”
More Sunshine … and Some Clouds
Three bills designed to increase government transparency were reintroduced this year:
- Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) reintroduced the Federal Records Modernization Act (HR 745) “To improve Federal employee compliance with Federal and Presidential recordkeeping requirements.”
- Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) reintroduced the Electronic Message Preservation Act (HR 1376), which would “require preservation of certain electronic records by Federal agencies, [and] to require a certification and reports relating to Presidential records. …”
- Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) reintroduced the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, which would allow cameras into federal courtrooms, including the Supreme Court, with the permission of the presiding judge. (A new C-Span survey finds that 76% of voters agree that the Supreme Court should allow television coverage of its oral arguments.)
Some states are also making headway. In Wisconsin, on the eve of Sunshine Week, “Gov. Scott Walker … issued an executive order making it easier for the public to find state government notices and meeting minutes. Walker in his order also asked state agencies to post the most commonly requested documents online to be readily available to the public, and to post how quickly their officials respond to records requests under the state’s open records law,” according to GOVERNING.
On the flip side, in the state where Sunshine Week began, state Rep. Byron Donalds, a Republican, introduced a bill that would allow Florida’s elected and appointed officials to discuss public business in private. HB 843 proposes that “Two members of any board or commission … with a total membership of at least five members may meet in private and discuss public business without providing notice of such meeting, recording such meeting, or making such records open to public inspection. …”
According to FOIA.gov, the FBI received 12,931 FOIA requests in FY2015—20% of all FOIA requests submitted to the Department of Justice (DOJ)—surpassed only by FOIA requests made to the DOJ’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (31,513 or 46%). In the days leading up to Sunshine Week, the FBI launched a new FOIA request system that eliminates the use of email for filing FOIA requests. “According to the bureau, the new online portal transitions the agency from a manual system to an automated system that will help it handle its large volume of requests,” TechCrunch reports. The FBI explains its procedures here.
On a Somewhat Lighter Note …
For the third year during Sunshine Week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) solicited nominations “and scoured through news stories and the #FOIAFriday Twitter threads to find the worst, the silliest, and the most ridiculous responses to [requests] for public information.” You can find the winners of The Foilies here.
The brackets for MuckRock’s FOIA March Madness—the “battle for the title of Most Responsive Agency”—are complete. Check back periodically to view responses received from each of the 64 federal agencies.