Breaking the Information Bottleneck – From Requesting to Accessing Information

NYTimes thomas fuchsThe New York Times reported this weekend that a handful of legislators and government agencies in the U.S. are trying to break the information bottleneck.  “All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure,” President Obama wrote in a memorandum about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  But two and a half years after the president’s call for openness, only 49 of 90 federal agencies have reported making concrete changes to their FOIA procedures, according to a recent analysis by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which collects and publishes declassified government documents.  Long backlogs of requests for information, along with responses that take a year or more, are common.

The Justice Department has introduced a Web site, foia.gov which shows which agencies last year had the biggest backlogs of FOIA requests (State and Homeland Security) and which had the most full-time FOIA staff members (Defense and Justice).  Long delays, however, can render once-timely information irrelevant.  And the real causes of the hold-ups may not only be limited staff resources but may also include an agency’s desire to control its public image, says David Sobel, the senior counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for government transparency and consumer digital rights.  To tackle the problem, the Senate passed a bill last month, introduced by Mr. Leahy and called the Faster FOIA Act , whose goal is to expedite the way agencies process requests.

The new frontier in government accountability is not faster responses to information requests.  It is an era of open data in which government departments put their information online in usable, searchable formats.  That would eliminate the need for many people to file individual FOIA requests — and for agencies to undertake the labor-intensive process of answering them…

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