TRANSPARENCY GROUPS PUBLISH FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT BENCHMARKS FOR FEDERAL AGENCIES
Washington, D.C.—A coalition of transparency organizations set a new benchmark for transparency today by publishing model Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regulations, building on FOIA's 50-year legacy of making government more open and accountable. The groups—Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and the National Security Archive—all experts in FOIA litigation, recommend a common set of practices to ensure agencies best enhance the public's right to know.
“The Freedom of Information Act is a critical tool to shine a light on the inner workings of government. Unfortunately, FOIA processes at federal agencies differ greatly from one another, making it difficult for information-seekers to navigate red tape. Our model regulations will help standardize these process and improve citizens’ ability to see behind the scenes in Washington,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said.
Key provisions of the coalition's recommendation to improve FOIA draw on best practices among the agencies, and include:
- Protecting media access by treating an online-only news organization as a "representative of the news media" and thus qualifying for a FOIA fee waiver.
- Saving taxpayer resources by encouraging agencies to post documents released through the FOIA process online.
- Providing agencies with a concrete process for applying the oft-abused "pre-decisional" Exemption 5 by including a public interest balancing test and limiting the exemption’s use to documents created less than 12 years ago
- Making disclosure the default by formalizing the president's directive for an agency to release information in response to a request except when it clearly identifies specific, foreseeable harm arising from the disclosure.
"This is an important opportunity for the Department of Justice to serve a leadership role in crafting transparency-friendly common FOIA regulations. The model regulations we've put forward streamline the process, favor disclosure, and give the public more access to government documents and data," EPIC Associate Director Ginger McCall said.
These recommendations are well-timed. On the legislative side, the House of Representatives recently passed legislation to improve FOIA and the Senate is considering a significant overhaul. In the executive, as part of the White House's December 2013 National Action Plan, the president committed to create "a core FOIA regulation and common set of practices," a responsibility that will fall on the Department of Justice's Office of Information Policy
"Vigilance is required by the requester community to ensure that the Common Regulation actually does lead to the release of more documents, more quickly," National Security Archive's FOIA Coordinator Nate Jones said.
The administration will begin the review process to determine the potential content of a regulation on May 29th. The coalition proposal sets a standard against which those deliberations will be judged.