Those of us who live and breathe FOIA tend to stay pretty focused on the federal access law or, for those outside the Federal government, on a patchwork of U.S. state access laws. We may tend to overlook that there are now more than 90 countries with similar laws of their own, and we at OGIS have had an opportunity to meet with quite a few international access professionals.
Earlier in July, OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet traveled to Brasilia, Brazil to participate in an International Seminar on Transparency and Access to Information, organized by the government of Brazil and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This event drew together experts from many countries, including Chile, Mexico, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and, of course, the U.S. While much of the discussion focused on the Access to Information bill pending in Brazil’s Congress, those representing other countries added international context, particularly in terms of their experiences implementing access laws and managing records in order to make access possible. Director Nisbet added to the conversation with a presentation on OGIS’s establishment as the FOIA Ombudsman’s and the cases we have handled in our first two years.
OGIS staff also has met with international representatives on a less formal basis. In the last few weeks alone, we have had visits with leaders from Bangladesh, the European Union and Spain, all of whom were interested in how FOIA functions in the U.S. and OGIS’s unique role in the FOIA landscape. These meetings are always fascinating, as we discover that all countries face similar challenges such as records management and resources. Bangladeshi officials, for example, regularly deal with records that have been damaged by flood water or termites. The meetings also are inspiring, as we realize that our FOIA system provides a model for these relatively new laws.
The Open Government Partnership (OGP) — an international effort to promote openness in which the U.S. government is an organizing partner — met recently in Washington, D.C., highlighting that the right to access government information, whether it’s through FOIA or another kind of Right to Know law, is essential to transparency and accountability. We look forward to the larger U.S. FOIA community participating in the OGP initiative.