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Revising FOIA for Improved Access to Government Information
Posted On August 19, 2014
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Going International

Many countries and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are now also making open government and open data key principles. The U.N., World Bank, and about 90 national governments provide internet-based online access to key information and data to everyone. Of course the nature and depth of information is an issue in every country, some of which have clear freedom of information mandates, such as the U.K., while others are much further behind on the curve.

And data isn’t the only key information that decision makers, journalists, researchers, or concerned citizens need. Getting at information that may be seen as restricted due to security issues or because of potential embarrassment to those in power is clearly still a problem, despite the progress being made. To help guarantee access and rights to information, FOIA-like laws have been passed in many countries: Denmark (1970), Norway (1970), France (1978), Netherlands (1978), Australia (1982), Canada (1982), New Zealand (1982), Hungary (1992), Ireland (1997), Thailand (1997), South Korea (1996), U.K. (2000), Japan (1999), Mexico (2002), India (2002), and Germany (2005).

Going Local

State and local governments are not immune from public scrutiny, although FOIA-like agreements have lagged in development. “Following the Money 2014: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,”reported on the current state of public access to government spending data in the U.S. It begins by explaining, “Every year, state governments spend tens of billions of dollars through contracts for goods and services, subsidies to encourage economic development, and other expenditures.” Last year, the annual inventory found that for the first time, “all 50 states operated websites to make information on state spending accessible to the public.” According to this year’s edition, “states are making progress toward comprehensive, one-stop, one-click transparency and accountability for state government spending. … Many states, however, still have a long way to go to provide taxpayers with the information they need to ensure that government is spending their money effectively.”

An analysis by Adriana S. Cordis, of USC Upstate, and Patrick L. Warren, of Clemson University, notes that freedom of information laws in U.S. states reduced the rate at which officials committed corrupt acts by about 20%. In the immediate aftermath of the implementation of strong freedom of information laws, corruption conviction rates approximately doubled, suggesting that the regulations made it easier to detect malfeasance. Over time, conviction rates declined, which the authors believe may mean that overall corruption diminished. The changes in convictions were more pronounced in states with more intense media coverage: “One of the most important changes in the relationship between public officials and the press in recent years has been the widespread adoption of FOIA laws at multiple levels of government. These laws provide clear guarantees regarding the rights of individuals and organizations to access information about government activities, and they make it easier for members of the press and members of the public at large to hold those in power accountable for their actions.”

On the local level, a requester is dealing with often arcane and divergent filing structures, lost data, the indifference or suspicious attitudes of staff, as well as issues of poor freedom of information training and inadequate procedures. Ehling has fought for access and better government processes and notes that when it comes to helping reduce corruption levels and improving citizen participation, the varying nature of the wording of local- and state-level laws and procedures is a major issue. “In general, the greater the scope of a law’s ‘coverage’ of government records, the deeper one is able to dig into those records to view governmental activities in their various stages of development—from inception through execution,” he says. “Broad access to correspondence is perhaps most important for the uncovering of corruption, since it provides the most unfiltered (and yet documented) view of governmental activity. Under many state FOI laws, ‘deliberative process’ privileges of various kinds have been adopted, and are relied upon to withhold many ‘deliberative’ conversations, broadly construed. Minnesota’s Data Practices Act does not have a data classification that covers anything so broad, and as such most governmental correspondence is available to a requester.”

As information professionals, we have a major stake in the ongoing process of opening up government information. In 2002, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit Judge Damon J. Keith summed the issue up well in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft: “Democracies die behind closed doors. The First Amendment, through a free press, protects the people’s right to know that their government acts fairly, lawfully, and accurately.” 

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Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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