Evaluating the state of Freedom of Information in the U.S.

On his first day in office in 2009, President Obama issued a memo to federal agencies emphasizing the importance of administering the FOIA in favor of openness. The memo opened with a statement committing the Obama administration to “creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.”  However, as a recent evaluation by the Washington Postfound, there has been a struggle to produce noticeable results from these stated transparency initiatives.

Early on in Obama’s tenure, the outlook for improved transparency seemed hopeful. In 2009, the National Declassification Center (NDC) was established to declassify millions of pages of archived records. In 2010, response rates to FOIA requests increased, use of exemptions to refuse requests decreased and Federal backlogs of pending requests was reduced.

However, since 2010 progress has stalled, sometimes even reversing direction. The Washington Post reports that the number of requests denied in full due to exemptions increased more than 10% in 2011 and that the government overall had a bigger backlog of requests at the end of 2011 than at the start. The NDC’s 2012 progress report showed that it had completed review for only 51.1 million pages, less than 14% of the goal to declassify 370 million pages by 2013. In addition, recent actions by the administration and Congress have sought to provide greater government control over classified information.

It is expected that there would be some growing pains when attempting to rewire the government’s posture towards public information. The sheer number of documents being reviewed for declassification by the NDC and the volume of pending and incoming FOIA requests for federal agencies are a big undertaking and, ultimately, expensive.  In these times of rapidly shrinking government budgets, the cost of responding to FOIA requests and declassifying documents can seem onerous to agencies, a setback that is also affecting freedom of information at the state and local level. For example, the Washington D.C. mayor’s administration recently proposed changes to the D.C. public records laws to broaden the range of documents exempt from disclosure in order to curb “burdensome record requests.”

However, most freedom of information advocates would argue that transparency should be one of the highest and most fundamental of priorities for a democratic government, despite the financial cost. In the long run, shining a brighter light on government operations helps make the government accountable for its spending and reduce waste. Government by the people for the people only works if the people have a method of knowing the people’s business- a concept that is one of the basic tenets of the Open Government Partnership, an international initiative established in 2011 (with the U.S. as a founding member) aimed at securing concrete commitments from governments worldwide to promote transparency. President Obama spoke at the inaugural event, saying “We pledge to be more transparent at every level — because more information on government activity should be open, timely, and freely available to the people.”  With statements like these, the Obama administration seems to understand the importance of transparency and has been making active efforts to improve access to information on several levels.

The question is, are the efforts currently being made to improve public access to information enough or should higher results be demanded? In times of economic recession, where should transparency initiatives rank on the scale of priorities and expenditure?