The United States released its second Open Government National Action Plan on December 5, announcing 23 new initiatives to further transparency and encourage a more efficient and effective government. One initiative, Modernizing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), lists five specific commitments the government plans to undertake over the next two years.
The National Action Plan is part of the United States’ participation with the Open Government Partnership (OGP) announced in July 2011 by the U.S. and Brazil. The OGP is a global initiative that supports efforts to promote more transparent, effective and accountable institutions. In September 2011, the U.S. released its first Open Government National Action Plan, setting forth 26 goals to create a more open government.
In two years, the OGP has grown from 8 member-nations to more than 60. In that time, the U.S. has continued to implement and improve upon the open government commitments set forth in the first Plan, including consulting with external stakeholders for feedback, and to solicit suggestions for new commitments for the second Plan.
The second Plan’s commitments include new initiatives as well as expanded efforts that build from the first Plan. The commitments surrounding FOIA modernization intend to improve the FOIA process for both agencies and requesters—the same goal OGIS strives to achieve through its work.
The FOIA commitments are:
- Improve the Customer Experience through a Consolidated Online FOIA Service. More than 100 Federal agencies are subject to FOIA. For the average requester, this can mean significant time and energy spent searching for the right agency and navigating the unique process for submitting a request to that agency. The Administration will launch a consolidated request portal that allows the public to submit a request to any Federal agency from a single website and includes additional tools to improve the customer experience. The U.S. Government will establish a FOIA task force that will review current practices, seek public input, and determine the best way to implement this consolidated FOIA service.
- Develop Common FOIA Regulations and Practices for Federal Agencies. Certain steps in the FOIA process are generally shared across Federal agencies. Standardizing these common aspects through a core FOIA regulation and common set of practices would make it easier for requesters to understand and navigate the FOIA process and easier for the Government to keep regulations up to date. The Administration will initiate an interagency process to determine the feasibility and the potential content of a core FOIA regulation that is both applicable to all agencies and retains flexibility for agency-specific requirements.
- Improve Internal Agency FOIA Processes. Over the past few years, several agencies have analyzed existing FOIA practices and used this information to make dramatic improvements in their backlogs and processing times, as well as to increase the proactive release of information in the public interest. The U.S. Government will scale these targeted efforts to improve the efficiency of agencies with the biggest backlogs, and to share lessons learned to further improve internal agency FOIA processes.
- Establish a FOIA Modernization Advisory Committee. Improvements to FOIA administration must take into account the views and interests of both requesters and the Government. The United States will establish a formal FOIA Advisory Committee, comprised of government and non-governmental members of the FOIA community, to foster dialogue between the Administration and the requester community, solicit public comments, and develop consensus recommendations for improving FOIA administration and proactive disclosures.
- Improve FOIA Training Across Government to Increase Efficiency. In order to efficiently and effectively respond to FOIA requests, every Federal employee — not just those in an agency’s FOIA office — should fully understand the FOIA process. The Administration will make standard e-learning training resources available for FOIA professionals and other Federal employees and encourage their use.
Efforts are already underway to begin achieving these FOIA goals. The National Archives and Records Administration, OGIS’s parent agency, will house the FOIA advisory committee and has begun taking steps to establish that committee. The Department of Justice, which heads up governmentwide FOIA training, has already begun developing its new online FOIA training curriculum. Additionally, the Administration is working to set up interagency groups to look at the best options for a single online FOIA service and the feasibility of establishing a common FOIA regulation.
All of these initiatives will require a lot of effort from our FOIA colleagues in government and we look forward to working with them and alongside the requester community as we implement these important—and necessary—updates to the FOIA process.