September 30, 2010

A Transparent Government – Reality or Still a Work in Progress?

By CREW Staff

The mid-way point of the Obama administration seemed like a good time to assess how well its transparency agenda is doing and, in particular, whether agencies have improved their administration of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). So Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sent out a survey to hundreds of agency FOIA personnel to get their on-the-ground input about what is and is not happening at their agencies and what impediments they see to implementing the FOIA. The results reveal that major roadblocks continue to prevent both requesters and agency FOIA personnel from getting what they need under the FOIA.

We heard the same lament from respondents over and over: there is insufficient staff, funding, and training to make the FOIA truly work well. 54% of respondents identified insufficient staff as the greatest impediment to effective FOIA implementation. This recurring problem has plagued agencies throughout the FOIA's existence, and has resulted in long backlogs of requests across the government.

New problems emerged as well. Two widely touted FOIA initiatives - creation of chief FOIA officers and FOIA public liaisons at each agency - have had little or no impact on how agencies administer the FOIA. In the same vein, despite memoranda from the president and attorney general mandating a more transparent government, survey results suggest agencies give widely varying priority to the FOIA. 24% believe the FOIA is handled appropriately at their agencies, while 20% say it is not considered important. And while FOIA professionals are aware of the new FOIA policies, this has yet to translate into a major shift in the FOIA culture across the federal government.

The survey results also reveal a great divide between requesters and agency FOIA personnel that no open government directive or initiative has yet to bridge. While FOIA professionals believe requesters don't adequately understand the FOIA process, a majority embrace increasing communication and contact between the two groups.

In this time of across-the-board agency budget cuts, it is not surprising the administration has focused on non-monetary changes, such as revamped policy statements and increased duties for already existing agency personnel. But its commitment to transparency must be judged by results, and the information CREW has received suggests the steps taken so far fall far short of what is needed - more money, more staff, and a radical shift in attitude to change the pervasive culture of secrecy to one of openness and responsiveness.

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