As a coalition of more than 40 organizations, OpenTheGovernment.org tries to bring to the forefront issues affecting society and to create safer environments. Among its members are journalists, consumer groups, environmentalists, libraries and legal groups. Along with providing other resources, the organization publishes an annual Secrecy Report Card to measure the current state of secrecy in the federal government.
Rick Blum, Director
Q: Why is an open government essential for public safety?
A: The public depends on a government that is open, that is accountable and that is responsive so that parents can make choices about their children’s safety, so that neighbors can address the threats of a chemical treatment plant nearby, so that we can ensure that government officials and business leaders are doing everything they can to make our community safer to live in, and so that our governments are accountable and run in an efficient matter.
Q: What is the state of FOIA today?
A: Sept. 11 was used as an excuse to really close down the doors of the government. We are still more open than other places around the world. There is a paradox here. Our laws are looked at as models for other countries to adopt. We really need to set a mark for what an open society does in the face of threats. That is, we strengthen our freedom and strengthen open government. That is what we do to promote safety.
Q: What are your hopes for the future of FOIA?
A: I don’t think (the public) really understands what FOIA really is, or the exemptions, or the fees. We should make FOIA, ideally, irrelevant. The government should be providing information on a daily basis. It should be routine. Make it public. Of course, when it comes to matters that threaten national security, those can be withheld. We don’t need to have the combinations to the locks on the gates, we just need to know the guards are being trained enough to ensure the safety of the community.
Founded in 1971 by Ralph Nader, Public Citizen serves as a nonprofit, consumer interest group that concentrates mostly on protecting the public’s health, economic and environmental policies. Aside from acting as a voice of
consumers to Congress and the courts, Public Citizen also advocates for an open and accountable government by helping citizens gain access to documents through FOIA claims.
Adina Rosenbaum, Staff attorney in the litigation group
Q: What do you feel is the biggest problem facing FOIA?
A: One of the problems is that there are often huge delays to FOIA requests. We would be interested in seeing some reform to that issue. I worked a case recently where we had requested some information from the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) where they filed a stay in the case asking for 27 months to reply to us.
Q: What is the impact of these delays?
A: Well, I think it is just frustrating for people. It is important to have the information to allow people to hold their elected officials accountable for their actions and that it is current information. If it is taking us two years to get that information, there are limits to what we can do with it.
Q: How does FOIA affect ordinary citizens?
A: It is very important that FOIA is something that is accessible to ordinary people and not just to people who have expertise or to the media, because it is such an important way for people to be able to hold their elected officials accountable and to ensure democracy. That is one of the great strengths of FOIA – that is that it is available to everybody.
SPJ awarded the FOIAdvocates Web site the 2001 Sunshine Award for educating the public on matters regarding open access laws. Since attorneys David Bahr and Daniel Stotter began the organization, FOIAdvocates has helped public interest groups, individuals and businesses gain access to government records. Its comprehensive Web site now offers a FOIA overview, instructions to make document requests, categories for fee waivers and exemptions, state public record laws and other resources.
Daniel Stotter, Co-founder and attorney
Q: Is FOIA just a tool of the media?
A: No, I don’t think that just the press uses FOIA. Very few of our contacts are press-related, and we get dozens of calls and e-mails every month, and many of those are from private citizens and citizen groups. There is a huge growth of interest for people to get their own records and to see what the government is doing to keep the government honest and law abiding.
Q: What problems does FOIA have today?
A: One is that there doesn’t seem to be any enforcement of the time frames that are in place. Many agencies have chosen to disregard those. Then there is a problem with the citizen suit provision. (Agencies) provide records after the lawsuit is filed, then claim to be the winner so they don’t have to pay (the requester’s legal fees). It has been my experience that many agencies still need to have a law suit filed in order to feel compelled to disclose.
Q: Why is reforming FOIA so that it is more efficient so important?
A: It is essential to have FOIA to see what is happening behind closed doors of government agencies. I think hardly any of the laws of constitutional protections can really be enforced if we can’t monitor what the agencies are doing and see documents that indicate their policy positions.
The Project on Government Oversight
Formed in 1981, the Project on Government Oversight works from whistleblowers’ tips to conduct investigations into the workings of federal agencies through interviews and FOIA requests. The nonprofit then reports to Congress and agencies, offering solutions. POGO also works with the media to spread the findings of its studies in hopes of spurring change.
Nick Schwellenbach, Investigator
Q: How do you feel about the Cornyn-Leahy legislation?
Hopefully, their legislation passes. At least it has brought FOIA issues more to the forefront. It is refreshing that Congress has gotten back into FOIA and trying to strengthen FOIA. It is nice that Cornyn is a Republican and cares about these open access issues. He shows that you can be a conservative, or a liberal, or of any ideology, and you can value open government.
Q: With using FOIA so often, do you find delays to be a problem?
A: I think (agencies) want to get information out, but I think they are overworked. It is easy to slip through the cracks.
At the same time I have had FOIA requests promptly replied to. They were extremely helpful, and it was exactly what I wanted. Sometimes we focus too much on the negative stories rather than the fact that FOIA often does work well. Sometimes people think that FOIA is useless, and they don’t even try. That often is the problem with reporters, and there needs to be more education on that front.
Q: What tends to be a major problem when accessing government information?
A: I think increasingly agencies view the exemptions as the main thing instead of the fact that they are supposed to be releasing information. They are trying to black out information. That can be a good thing when it comes to national security, but any time they think they can exempt something, they try. They are supposed to segregate out, if they can, information that is legitimately secretive versus that which is not.
OMB Watch and the Right to Know Network
The nonprofit, research organization OMB Watch began in 1983 to oversee the actions of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Today, it focuses on increasing government accountability and boosting public participation through access to information. In 1989, OMB Watch started the Right to Know Network. This service uses the Internet to make accessing information easier for the public. Today, universities, health groups, government officials and journalists use RTK Net for both educational purposes and for accessing information mostly pertaining to environmental issues.
Gary Bass, Executive director and founder
Q: Why is it that many people associate FOIA with the media?
A: I don’t think that it is a law that serves mostly journalists. The journalist community has probably been the most visible in speaking out on FOIA issues. The NGO (non-governmental organization) community needs to do a better job at helping out.
Q: Why should legislators push for FOIA reform?
A: I think there is a lot of education that has to occur. I don’t think the policy-makers understand how quickly the public’s right to know can be eroded. I think there is a natural tendency after the horrific events of Sept. 11 to hunker down. I think there needs to be a strong call to protect the core principles of our democracy, include the First Amendment and public access. If we lose those principles, or if we slip, then the terrorists really have won. That is why it is so important to educate policy-makers who are fighting for a strength in democracy – that a strength in democracy means freedom of information.
Q: Why is it important to fight for efficient and effective open access laws?
A: I think we need to protect ourselves to ensure that we don’t move from a society based on the right to know to one that becomes a need to know – where the government determines whether you have that need. We are precariously balanced today somewhere in the middle of these two.
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