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AINS Blog - FOIA and Case Management

Friday
Oct122012

City of Victoria Requests Limitation on Focus Magazine Requests

By: Travis J.

The City of Victoria has applied to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia to cap the number of requests for information made by three individuals associated with Focus magazine, and anyone working on their behalf. If granted, the magazine’s team would collectively be limited to one active request at a time, including the time to resolve any appeal. 

In total, the city has disclosed 2,000 pages of records to Focus. One recent request took city staff 34 hours to compile, city spokesperson Katie Josephson wrote in an email to the News. “It’s important that everyone have timely access to records and information, and currently, requests from the individuals affiliated with this publication are exhausting resources available,” she wrote.

However, Focus magazine publisher David Broadland points out that Focus has paid thousands of dollars in fees to acquire some of the city’s records. “Rather than adapting and adding resources, they are trying to stop (requests) from happening,” he said.

The conflict between the city and the magazine raises issues regarding the growing strain on government public information office resources as well as the high importance of maintaining transparency in government. 

The City of Victoria’s application to the OIP raises many important questions.  Is it acceptable for a Government entity to limit requests from a specific organization or individual?  Should guidelines be put in place to limit unreasonable or numerous freedom of information requests from individuals?  If the City of Victoria is successful in their application to cap requests made by Focus magazine, do you think more government organizations will seek to limit requests by individual requesters?  How will this affect FOI law going forward?   

Let us know what you think in the comment section below.

You can read the full article 
here.

Friday
Sep282012

FOIA: Streamlining the Document Request Process

By: Ewa K.

Government travel costs are hitting the news again as Bloomberg News reports this week that “only about half [of the 57 major federal agencies] provided the records and costs” required under the Freedom of Information Act when Bloomberg News filed requests for the out-of-town travel records for fiscal year 2011 for Cabinet secretaries and top officials at these agencies.

President Obama stepped into office promising a more transparent federal government and “over the past four years, federal agencies have gone to great efforts to make government more transparent and more accessible than ever” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.

The recent findings by Bloomberg News show that these great efforts have not transformed into results. But it’s not just the United States that is facing this serious issue; a similar problem is occurring in Canada. An audit conducted earlier this year for Newspapers Canada, involved hundreds of access requests to federal, provincial and municipal governments across Canada. The responses were then graded on speed of response and completeness, with the federal Canadian government scoring the letter grades “D” and “C” respectively.

In the United States, some of the systematic issues with the FOIA process will be tackled through newly issued (as of August 24, 2012) guidelines from the Office of Management and Budget (PDF) to all federal agencies on how to streamline government information. This memo calls for all government information to be stored in an electronic format by December of 2019.

It seems that electronic document storage can enhance accessibility; however, this important step is only one piece of the puzzle. As more and more information is housed electronically, there is greater demand in both the U.S. and Canada to streamline the document request process through freedom of information laws. AINS is already implementing systems within the federal government and in the private sector to do just that with products such as our FOIAXpress electronic FOIA request management solution in the U.S. and its Canadian counterpart, ATIPXpress, for access to information requests.

Friday
Sep212012

UVa FOIA climate change controversy concludes?

By: Mallory W.

The ongoing controversy involving a former University of Virginia professor and his work on climate change has reached an interesting, if temporary, conclusion. A Virginia judge ruled earlier this week that Michael E. Mann’s email correspondence regarding global warming was exempt from the Virginia FOIA. The American Tradition Institute has been trying to gain access to Mann’s discussions with other climatologists that occurred while he was working at UVa between 1999 and 2005.

Mann is quoted as saying that ATI and other similar groups are attacking climate research “through the abuse of public records and FOIA laws.” Arlington Circuit Court Judge Paul Sheridan ruled that the emails did qualify as public records, but are exempt under a specific clause that states “data, records or information of a proprietary nature produced or collected by or for faculty or staff of public institutions of higher education…where such data, records or information has not been publicly released, published, copyrighted or patented” may be excluded from public records request fulfillment.

This exemption is designed to protect the creative process; this data may be exempted while research is in progress, but once research has been published, it qualifies as public record. It is expected that ATI will appeal the case and continue their pursuit of challenging Mann and his research.

Did Judge Sheridan go “too far” and prevent “all transparency,” as ATI lawyer David Schnare stated, or should Mann’s emails regarding data and research not yet published indeed be protected from public disclosure?

You can read more about the decision here.   

Wednesday
Aug152012

Evaluating the state of Freedom of Information in the U.S.

By: Michelle S.

On his first day in office in 2009, President Obama issued a memo to federal agencies emphasizing the importance of administering the FOIA in favor of openness. The memo opened with a statement committing the Obama administration to “creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.”  However, as a recent evaluation by the Washington Post found, there has been a struggle to produce noticeable results from these stated transparency initiatives.

Early on in Obama’s tenure, the outlook for improved transparency seemed hopeful. In 2009, the National Declassification Center (NDC) was established to declassify millions of pages of archived records. In 2010, response rates to FOIA requests increased, use of exemptions to refuse requests decreased and Federal backlogs of pending requests was reduced.

However, since 2010 progress has stalled, sometimes even reversing direction. The Washington Post reports that the number of requests denied in full due to exemptions increased more than 10% in 2011 and that the government overall had a bigger backlog of requests at the end of 2011 than at the start. The NDC’s 2012 progress report showed that it had completed review for only 51.1 million pages, less than 14% of the goal to declassify 370 million pages by 2013. In addition, recent actions by the administration and Congress have sought to provide greater government control over classified information.

It is expected that there would be some growing pains when attempting to rewire the government’s posture towards public information. The sheer number of documents being reviewed for declassification by the NDC and the volume of pending and incoming FOIA requests for federal agencies are a big undertaking and, ultimately, expensive.  In these times of rapidly shrinking government budgets, the cost of responding to FOIA requests and declassifying documents can seem onerous to agencies, a setback that is also affecting freedom of information at the state and local level. For example, the Washington D.C. mayor’s administration recently proposed changes to the D.C. public records laws to broaden the range of documents exempt from disclosure in order to curb “burdensome record requests.”

However, most freedom of information advocates would argue that transparency should be one of the highest and most fundamental of priorities for a democratic government, despite the financial cost. In the long run, shining a brighter light on government operations helps make the government accountable for its spending and reduce waste. Government by the people for the people only works if the people have a method of knowing the people’s business- a concept that is one of the basic tenets of the Open Government Partnership, an international initiative established in 2011 (with the U.S. as a founding member) aimed at securing concrete commitments from governments worldwide to promote transparency. President Obama spoke at the inaugural event, saying “We pledge to be more transparent at every level -- because more information on government activity should be open, timely, and freely available to the people.”  With statements like these, the Obama administration seems to understand the importance of transparency and has been making active efforts to improve access to information on several levels.

The question is, are the efforts currently being made to improve public access to information enough or should higher results be demanded? In times of economic recession, where should transparency initiatives rank on the scale of priorities and expenditure? 

Friday
Jul202012

Combining FOIA and social media

By: Michelle S. and Mallory W.

Amsterdam-based design and research firm Metahaven has developed a social media service, called Nulpunt (“zero-point”), on which users can access, share, comment and collaborate on public documents.

The goal of this service is increased government transparency and accountability. The online database of FOIA’d documents functions like a social RSS reader; users can subscribe to topics of interest and automatically receive relevant government documents. The documents can then be excerpted and shared to highlight relevant information.

The project merges democracy with the ever-growing field of social media. While legislation such as the FOIA and others has the ultimate goal of government transparency, some agencies are more proactive with the release of public documents than others. Backlogs can form, causing citizens to have to wait extended periods for responses to their requests. Nulpunt will encourage users to share and collaborate, ultimately promoting more transparency. With this socialization of democracy, citizens could see the end of government secrecy.

Nulpunt will shift the way that information is disseminated to the public. Rather than having to actively request documents, important documents will instead be pushed to those users who are most likely to request them. The service will also help to alleviate the tedious process of responding to FOIA requests, as well as filing the FOIA requests themselves. Often, agencies must search through a multitude of documents to find those that are relevant, which can eat up valuable resources. By pushing documents proactively out to the public, governments will be more transparent, accountable, and efficient.  

To read more, please click here.