Open Government and Media Experts Make MAGIC

No disappearing documents at this MAGIC show: experts in government access — from journalists to Federal and state government officials to watch-dog groups — gathered Tuesday at the National Archives to discuss making government more transparent.

While the topics discussed at the Media Access to Government Information Conference (MAGIC)  were wide-ranging — from declassification to how technology can bolster transparency while protecting privacy — some of the 17 panelists specifically discussed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Gary Bass, founder and executive director of the government watch-dog OMB Watch,  said FOIA should be available as a safety net, a tool requesters use at last resort. How? “Create a government where the default assumption is that records must be released.” While progress has been made under the Obama administration,  more needs to be done, he said. One suggestion he and other panelists offered: create a government-wide floor of documents that every agency proactively posts.

FOIA, said OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet, plays a crucial role as a voice for citizens to talk to their government. FOIA “is not an anachronism. It remains a very important way to let government know what you are interested in,” she said, noting that communication between FOIA requesters and Federal agencies is crucial to fostering government transparency.

Communication between agencies and requesters is an OGIS Best Practice that costs nothing. That’s good news for agency FOIA professionals since it would take a magic trick in this Federal budget environment to create more resources for agency FOIA shops. “I’ve already seen some areas in which there are cuts in the Freedom of Information Act [programs] and there will be more,” said William Kammer, chief of the FOIA Division, Office of the Secretary of Defense and Joint Staff, U.S. Department of Defense and vice president of the American Society of Access Professionals (ASAP).

Several participants stressed the concept of building in transparency at a record’s creation — structuring forms and documents so confidential information is compartmentalized away from public data. And if a record isn’t “born that way,” offered government technology expert Dr. George Strawn, “it will have to be born again.”