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Bush order aims for accessibility for FOI Act requests

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Dec. 14, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Dec. 14, 2005

Bush order aims for accessibility for FOI Act requests

  • Establishing FOI Act centers in each agency is one way the administration hopes to benefit both the public and agencies in dissemination of public information.

Dec. 14, 2005  ·   President Bush today signed an Executive Order mandating agencies to create service centers and designate public liaisons and calling for “tangible, measurable improvements” in processing requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Intending to streamline the process of FOI Act requests, the order requires each agency to designate a senior official to act as chief FOIA officer for the agency. Each agency will also establish a FOIA Requester Service Center and public liaisons who will serve as a single point of contact to requesters. Currently, agencies have different structures for handling FOI Act requests — some have entire departments designated to them, while others include it as one duty among others for a handful of staff members.

“Requesters don’t have a single point of contact or someone to call when they run into trouble,” said Rep. Todd Platts, R-Pa., who was present at the President’s signing of the order. Calling the current process “difficult to navigate,” Platts said, “now agencies must take ownership of improving how they process FOIA requests.”

The government received more than 4 million FOI Act requests in 2004 and a recent study by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government showed that agencies responded to 13 percent fewer FOI Act requests last year than in 2000. Many requests extend long beyond the Act’s statutory “20 working days” deadline, and some requesters never receive a response.

The goal is for the order to expedite the process of responding to requests, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. The order directs agencies to “ensure that their process is citizen-centered and results-oriented,” he said. It will “improve the disclosure of information to the general public” and “make sure that information is being disclosed in a timely and quick manner.”

If the system that the order envisions actually materializes, these changes could have a positive effect on handling FOI Act requests, said Mark Tapscott, the director for the Center for Media and Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation. “This is an encouraging step because the Bush White House recognizes that there is a problem with FOIA,” Tapscott said, but he doubts the order’s overall effectiveness. “I don’t think it’ll make a difference in the day-to-day operations.”

Tapscott noted that the order fails to address major concerns with the FOI Act process, including the overly broad exemptions, the lack of penalties for agencies for FOI Act violations and the pro-government imbalance with FOI Act litigation in courts.

It remains unclear whether this order changes the administration’s current policy on granting FOI Act requests. A 2001 memorandum issued to agencies by former Attorney General John Ashcroft said the government would defend their FOI Act withholdings so long as they were within the law, effectively presuming that information should not be released — virtually the opposite of the previous pro-disclosure policy. Currently, nine exemptions to the FOI Act allow the government to withhold information. The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government study revealed that denials of information using these exemptions increased 22 percent from 2000 to 2004.

Under the order, the agencies have six months to complete a review of their current FOI Act operations, the results of which will be used to create agency-specific plans to eliminate or reduce FOI Act request backlog and increase public awareness as to the agency’s request processing. “It will be interesting to see how quickly the agencies move and how well the OMB watches to see whether they’re doing what they’re supposed to,” Tapscott said, referring to the Office of Management and Budget, which will oversee the agencies’ plans.

(Executive Order: Improving Agency Disclosure of Information)CZ

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