Could FOIA work on a Data Act model?

FOIA officers could save money and time by releasing certain types of frequently requested material in a machine readable format, like the disclosure of payment information under the Data Act.

Shutterstock image: binary tunnel of data.

On his first full day in office, President Barack Obama directed federal agencies that "the presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions" involving the Freedom of Information Act. Six years into the Obama presidency, the process of streamlining the administration of FOIA across federal agencies is being hammered out inside the National Archives, at the Office of Government Information Services.

A federal advisory committee made up of government FOIA officers and stakeholders -- including attorneys specializing in FOIA lawsuits and frequent document requestors -- is collaborating on new policy, although its recommendations will be nonbinding.

While the process is designed to be transparent, it can also be a little unwieldy.

"Ideally federal advisory committees would do the majority of their work in public, online, asynchronously. 4 meetings a year of 30 people, in person, with various subcommittees for 2 hours each is not how you deliver solutions," tweeted Clay Johnson, a former Presidential Innovation Fellow who sits on the FOIA Advisory Committee.

At the most recent quarterly meeting, Govini founder Eric Gillespie and David Reed, assistant CFO at the Federal Communications Commission, suggested that the recently enacted Data Accountability and Transparency Act could have lessons for FOIA implementation. Their subcommittee on proactive disclosure of information is developing policy recommendations on how agencies should go about preemptively posting sought-after government information online, and policy for maintaining FOIA libraries of frequently requested material.

Their working theory is FOIA requests often center around clusters of categories, and frequent and active requesters themselves fit into types -- journalists, government watchdog groups, plaintiffs attorneys, etc. FOIA officers could save money and time by releasing certain types of frequently requested material in a way that is ingestible and machine readable, like the disclosure of payment information under the Data Act. Additionally, the Data Act provides for inspectors general to conduct oversight of the quality of the information released. The application of this oversight to FOIA requests has the potential, to improve agency compliance.

"If the records can be clustered into primary categories for each agency, proactively disclosing that type of record has high potential for cost savings and benefits," they wrote in a presentation.

Gillespie, whose firm Govini is an information platform based on federal and state contracting data, noted that there "are great business cases we can point to in the private sector of companies using [government information] as raw material."

While there is no repository of federal data to prove out the theory, requests made under New York State's Freedom of Information Law show that 55 percent of requests made of the state's Department of Environmental Conservation are after a handful of reports. Gillespie and Reed are hoping that their colleagues on the advisory committee can supply federal agency FOIA request logs for analysis, to see if there are common threads in information requests and among the community of requestors that can be used to develop policies for proactive disclosure.

Congress is taking a different tack in FOIA reform.

The FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2014, which the House passed in February, would consolidate FOIA requests on a single website, establish a Chief FOIA Officer Council (on the CIO Council model) to develop compliance recommendations, and require that material requested three or more times under FOIA be posted for public consumption online.