July 13, 2024

Slipstream: How to Break an Information Bottleneck?

“All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure,” the president wrote in a memorandum about the Freedom of Information Act.

FOIA (pronounced “FOY-a”) basically requires government agencies to divulge information when people ask for it. Corporations use it to learn about how their industries are regulated. Journalists use it to dig up all sorts of things. Ordinary Americans use it to find out how Washington operates and how tax dollars are spent.

“It is one of the best tools to make sure your government stays open and honest,” Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, says of the law.

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.

“At this rate, it will be four years before the agencies do what the president asked them to do on Day One,” says Thomas S. Blanton, the director of the National Security Archive. “The challenge now is to focus on the agencies that are dragging their feet or actively resisting.”

At long last, a handful of legislators and government agencies are trying to break the information bottleneck.

The Justice Department, for instance, has introduced a Web site, foia.gov. Peruse it, and you will see 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).

Of course, some departments get more FOIA requests than others. And some requests fall under exceptions that allow an agency to deny disclosing information that would harm government or private interests. That can take time.

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. “There hasn’t been a real will to solve the problem,” Mr. Sobel says.

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.

But some departments turn down certain requests altogether.

Consider the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which has resisted releasing the records of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage giants at the center of the housing boom and bust.

Taxpayers are bailing out these two behemoths; so far, the rescue has cost more than $150 billion. But members of the public still don’t have access to detailed records about the practices at Fannie and Freddie. That information could shed light on the last financial crisis — and, perhaps, help prevent a repeat.

“Taxpayers are on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars, and yet the taxpayer can’t get the documents showing how they operated,” Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, said of Fannie and Freddie. Before they were essentially taken over by the government, Fannie and Freddie were hybrids — quasi-government agencies that operated as for-profit corporations. They did not have to disclose records about, say, why they chose to donate to politicians who were supposed to be watching over them (oops). Nor did they have to disclose exactly how many loans they owned belonging to people with rock-bottom credit scores (ditto).

Now that Fannie and Freddie are operating under federal stewardship, many legislators and consumer advocates view them as public entities. Earlier this year, Mr. Chaffetz introduced a bill that would subject Fannie and Freddie to FOIA while they are under federal conservatorship. “All of those records,” Mr. Chaffetz says, “would be fair game.”

The Federal Housing Finance Agency, for its part, argues that Fannie and Freddie’s corporate documents are not agency records — and that subjecting them to the open-records law could set a troubling precedent.

“I urge you to consider carefully the harm that could be done by subjecting the enterprises to FOIA,” Edward J. DeMarco, acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, said at a hearing last month before a House subcommittee reviewing proposals to end the bailout.

Mr. DeMarco has been much more forthcoming about Fannie’s and Freddie’s operations than the companies’ previous leadership, some industry analysts say. But government openness and accountability shouldn’t depend on the urging of a president or the largess of an official like Mr. DeMarco — they should be automatic, no matter who is in charge, FOIA fans say.

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.

This year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission introduced a Web site, saferproducts.gov, that lets people search injury reports and complaints about rattles, toys, space heaters and other products by category or brand name — the kind of information that used to require a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

“This is a huge advance,” says Mr. Blanton at the National Security Archive. When every agency makes putting its information online a part of its public mission, he says, consumers won’t have to ask for it anymore.

That kind of transparency would free up the open-records law for more complicated requests, like those that raise questions about national security.

After all, why should political deliberations at Fannie Mae, or, for that matter, complaints about a faulty crib, be a secret?

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=063d59347c3959a46399efec1bef0f09

Speak Your Mind