FOIA Oversight in the House

SGI Coordinator Rick Blum testified about FOIA’s capabilities and constraints at a full meeting of the House Committee on Government and Oversight Reform, as one of several witnesses at “The Freedom of Information Act: Crowd-Sourcing Government Oversight. Joining Blum on the panel were Miriam Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Services, Dan Metcalfe, executive director of the Collaboration on Government Secrecy, Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, and Angela Canterbury, Director of Public Policy at the Project on Government Oversight.

Chairman Darrell Issa framed several issues early and quickly by suggesting that FOIA should expand, but ultimately become obsolete as agencies evolve from a request-based model of releasing information to a world of wide-ranging, affirmative disclosures, as technology makes it increasingly simple for large volumes of information to go online for public access. Issa expressed dismay at the tendency of government actors to have an easy time praising transparency but a harder time practicing it; he also noted that FOIA reform need not be partisan, citing efforts last year to repeal secrecy provisions in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. Ranking member Elijah Cummings added that he had just reintroduced legislation from the previous session of Congress which had passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support, including Issa’s: a package of five reforms called the Transparency and Openness in Government Act (H.R. 1144).

Members of the committee and witnesses wrestled with several persistent issues: How can we harness technology to streamline bureaucracy and maximize the sharing of information? How can we tell which changes in policy and practice contribute to the most improvement within agencies? Are there specific best practices that can be discerned from some agencies and applied at other agencies (actually, OGIS has crafted a six-page “best practices” report, but it seems to be an ongoing process)?

We look forward to continuing this discussion, and others, inspired by Sunshine Week and increased attention from the rich variety of people and offices involved.

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