A look at the Obama FOI record, depressing but not at all surprising…

I’m somewhat ambivalent about stories that try to blame presidents, regardless of their party, for FOIA performance. Federal FOIA is a sterling example of a statutory regime in its death throes, in bad need of substantive, topical reform, so all the blame game in the world does us no good if the statute itself is rotting from within…

In its first year, the Obama administration vowed an increase in transparency across government, including through the Freedom of Information Act; the proactive release of documents; and the establishment of a new agency to declassify more than 370 million pages of archived material.

Three years later, new evidence suggests that administration officials have struggled to overturn the long-standing culture of secrecy in Washington. Some of these high-profile transparency measures have stalled, and by some measures the government is keeping more secrets than before.

Media organizations and individuals requesting information under FOIA last year were less likely to receive the material than in 2010 at 10 of the 15 Cabinet-level departments, according to an analysis ofannual reports of government agencies by The Washington Post.

The federal government was more likely last year than in 2010 to use the act’s exemptions to refuse information. And the government overall had a bigger backlog of requests at the end of 2011 than at the start, due largely to 30,000 more pending requests to the Department of Homeland Security…

Oh, The Flacks, The Obstacles They Throw Up….

A major shout-out to my co-blogger and co-author, Dave Cuillier, for this fantastic study…and thanks to the good folks at the Society of Environmental Journalists for the tip!

We’ve all felt that the obstacles that government PIO “minders” throw up have been growing in number and intensity, and now a study by SPJ proves it…it is a fascinating look at the barriers reporters face in the form of government controls.

SPJ commissioned work by survey research professionals canvassing 776 newsgatherers (of whom 146 completed the survey) during January-February 2012. Here are some of the findings:

— “Pre-approval: Three-quarters reported that they have to get approval from public affairs officers before interviewing an agency employee (a third said that occurs all of the time and 45 percent some of the time).”

— “Prohibition: About half the reporters said agencies outright prohibit reporters from interviewing agency employees altogether at least some of the time, and 18 percent said it happens most of the time.”

— “Routing: Seven out of 10 reporters say their requests for interviews are forwarded to public affairs officers for selective routing to whomever they want.”

— “Monitoring: About 16 percent of the reporters said their interviews are monitored in person or over the telephone all the time, a third said it happens most of the time and another third said it happens some of the time.”

See the full report, “Mediated Access: Journalists’ Perceptions Of Federal Public Information Officer Media Control,” Society of Professional Journalists, March 12, 2012, by Carolyn Carlson, David Cuillier, and Lindsey Tulkoff, here.

A Great New FOI Classroom!

Passing along this wonderful post from Sunlight on a fabulous new FOI classroom project! Love to see this kind of stuff!

On April 11, 2012 ten University of Utah Honors students will launch a state-wide public initiative which, if successful, will forever change how Utah citizens interact with their local governments.  The initiative, called the Utah Local Government Transparency Project, (the “Transparency Project”) is the end result of eight months of study by the students in an Honors College Think Tank on Transparency and Privacy.  The Think Tank explored the often competing paradigms of privacy and transparency and heard from leading local and national experts in the area of open government and privacy  (including Daniel Schuman of the Sunlight Foundation)  to gain a comprehensive understanding of the complexities, nuances and challenges of balancing and reconciling these two competing interests.  We learned many things, including the fact that local governments in Utah, with some notable exceptions, lagged behind many of their counterparts around the nation in terms of transparency.  A study of 16 selected Utah local governments conducted as part of the Project demonstrated a wide disparity in government transparency practices and identified many transparency deficiencies.  From this in-depth study the Transparency Project was born.  As explained in greater detail below, the centerpiece of the Project is five transparency “best practices” for local governments to adopt.

Go, Utes! Go!

A Trillion Dollars on Secrecy Since 2001: Indeed, We Do Have a Spending Problem…on Secrecy

American Civil Liberties Union

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In the years since 9/11 the United States government has spent over a trillion dollars on national security measures that have increased government secrecy exponentially. A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union, “Drastic Measures Required,” illustrates the vast and systemic use of secrecy, including secret agencies, secret committees in Congress, a secret court and even secret laws, to keep government activities away from public scrutiny.

“Our government has reached unparalleled levels of secrecy,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Though this administration’s attempts to be transparent are laudable, the reality has been that it is just as secretive as its predecessor. Congress has the tools to curb this excessive secrecy but it must be more aggressive in using them. It’s time to drastically overhaul the way our government classifies information.”

“Drastic Measures Required” highlights the significant powers Congress holds under the Constitution to stem the tide of government secrecy: the authority to regulate the military and national security activities, as well as the tools to investigate executive branch authorities. The report lays out specific recommendations for Congress to help turn the tide of excessive government secrecy –including reforming the misused state secrets privilege, strengthening congressional oversight of national security programs and enacting legislation to limit and regulate the executive branch’s classification power.

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