Today we present an interview with Alex Howard, director of the Digital Democracy Project, and a member of the FOIA Advisory Committee. This is part of a series of posts on the Committee, whose members are FOIA experts from inside and outside of government who are appointed by the Archivist of the United States.
What prompted you to seek appointment to the FOIA Advisory Committee?
I’ve been attending the Committee’s meetings since it was founded in 2014 as a result of the Second U.S. National Action Plan for Open Government. I’d been tracking and participating in OGP since it launched in 2011. I wanted to see if recommendations from the Advisory Committee that former Archivist of the United States David Ferriero had chartered as a result of the plan led to improvements in the administration of the Freedom of Information Act that, in turn, improved public access to public information. I came first to the Committee as a journalist asking questions, then as an open government advocate at the Sunlight Foundation seeking answers. After eight years of listening to reasoned debate and recommendations, I thought I might be able to contribute more than public comments, questions, blog posts, and tweets if I scrubbed in.
What do you hope to accomplish from this experience?
This Advisory Committee was established to “foster dialogue between the Administration and the requester community, solicit public comments, and develop consensus recommendations for improving FOIA administration and proactive disclosures.” I’m hoping to improve public dialogue, get more public comments from the requester community into the public record, and catalyze better feedback loops between the public and the public institutions that serve them. I’d love to see the cross-agency collaboration around open government that existed during the Obama administration nurtured in ways that improve transparency and accountability. For over a decade, I’ve been hearing from people in and outside of government that “FOIA is broken.” I hope we can figure out more ways to help fix it together.
What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?
There are many challenges! The Freedom of Information Act itself could be stronger; the FOIA ranks in the middle of the world’s freedom of information laws. There are no sanctions, penalties, or fines applied for agencies and officials who violate the FOIA. Agency FOIA offices need more people and resources to keep up with demand. Neither NARA nor the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) are funded at levels that enable OGIS to act as a federal FOIA ombudsman for the U.S. government, as Congress intended. Legacy technology continues to be a challenge, even as the amount of records being generated by agencies continues to increase. It’s possible the U.S. government will receive over a million FOIA requests in 2023 for the first time. If I had to point to the biggest challenge, however, I might suggest culture and leadership. Back in 2016, when a coalition of open government advocates worked with Congress to enact reforms to the Freedom of Information Act, we suggested several ways that agencies could make the FOIA better that didn’t require reform overfocused on technology. There’s no substitute for a President making open government a priority and then holding agencies accountable for implementation, including the White House itself.
Tell us about your favorite FOIA experience.
Back in 2018, I filed a FOIA request with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for its open government plan. The VA initially told me it could not find the 2016-2018 Open Government Plan that the VA Chief Technology Officer had submitted to comply with President Obama’s Open Government Directive. After I appealed, the VA was able to find responsive records—but totally redacted the attached outline of the draft open government plan under a deliberative exemption. The response made it clear that open government was not a priority or practice at the VA in 2018. I remain hopeful that the White House will invest more capital and capacity in making transparency and accountability a priority across the federal government, given how ongoing challenges associated with secrecy, overclassification, and limits to public access to information affect national security, public health, and the informed citizenry self-government relies upon.