A proposed advisory committee to modernize how agencies comply with the Freedom of Information Act could herald a major improvement in relations between government agencies and the researchers, journalists and others who seek documents from them, a privacy advocate says.
If the committee is poorly composed or led by agencies like the Justice Department that have typically advocated more latitude for agencies to deny records requests, however, it could prove little use, said Ginger McCall, federal policy manager at the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for government transparency.
“At the very least it would do no harm, and it has the potential to do great good depending on the composition,” McCall said. “I’d want it to include people who are knowledgeable about FOIA and passionate and willing to take agencies to task. If it’s stacked with people who are very friendly with agencies and more concerned about maintaining their relationship with agencies, then that would not be good.”
Ideally the committee should include groups from outside government that have deep experience both requesting documents under FOIA and litigating over documents the government refuses to release, she said.
The group should also include representatives from transparency groups, from the media and from industries that frequently request documents using FOIA, she said. It should focus on narrowly interpreting exceptions to when agencies must release documents under FOIA and broadening the set of requesters who are eligible to waive FOIA fees, she said.
The White House proposal for a FOIA modernization advisory group came as part of the Obama administration’s second round of commitments to the Open Government Partnership, a coalition of 60 nations aimed at making government more transparent.
In addition to standing up the advisory committee, the White House also pledged to improve FOIA training, standardize FOIA policies across government and launch a cross-agency portal for online FOIA requests.
McCall expressed some skepticism about the proposal to standardize FOIA policies, noting the standardized policies could be friendly or hostile to requesters depending on which agencies take the lead in developing the regulations.
She praised the proposal for a unified FOIA portal, saying it could drastically simplify the process for requesting documents across multiple agencies.
The Environmental Protection agency launched a unified FOIA portal last year where people can request documents form the EPA and the Commerce Department as well as several smaller agencies and divisions including the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Federal Labor Relations Authority.
That portal, known as FOIAonline, could become the basis for a larger cross-government system but isn’t specifically mentioned in the White House commitment.