Sunshine Week Brings Bevy of Transparency Announcements

3/22/2011

America celebrated Sunshine Week 2011 between March 13-19. The White House and federal agencies announced several new transparency initiatives during the week, and Congress held hearings to examine government openness and introduced new transparency legislation. The open government community also released new reports examining transparency efforts within government.

New Websites

The Department of Justice's (DOJ) Office of Information Policy (OIP) announced the launch of FOIA.gov, a new website for the public to learn about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and to explore data on agencies' FOIA performance. The agency had committed to developing the website as part of its Open Government Plan issued in April 2010.

The White House also launched a new Good Government portal, highlighting its efforts on transparency and accountability. During the week, the White House also posted several times on its blog to discuss its ongoing transparency initiatives.

The National Archives and Records Administration's (NARA) Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) launched a blog and released its first annual report. The Public Interest Declassification Board also launched a new blog, which is publishing a series of papers for public comment. Data.gov, one of the administration's prime disclosure mechanisms, launched the Law community, which organizes and presents documents, such as agency decisions, to the public.

New Disclosures and Commitments

In addition to new websites and features, Sunshine Week saw some policy changes that commit the executive branch to new disclosures and other activities to support openness. As part of an effort to improve proactive disclosure of information and encourage greater accountability, the White House announced that agencies will post their staff directories online, as well as their congressional testimony and reports to Congress.

The White House also announced that OIP and OGIS would host a series of "Requester Roundtables," bringing together agencies and the public to discuss FOIA implementation. The goal of the meetings is to increase dialog between government agencies and those using government information to help set priorities, identify problems and find solutions. The first roundtable was held on March 21 at DOJ.

The Office of Personnel Management created a new job title for FOIA professionals and is exploring creating a new occupational series for FOIA-related staff. By creating the new titles, the administration hopes to create professional careers within agencies that will allow employees to progress while staying committed to disclosure and openness activities. In addition, the General Services Administration will update its government-wide contracts for services to assist agencies with FOIA processing.

Congressional Activity

The Senate Judiciary and House Oversight committees held hearings on FOIA.

Led by ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the Democratic members of the House Oversight committee introduced a bill, H.R. 1144, which contains several transparency provisions that passed the House in the 111th Congress. The Senate also saw transparency legislation introduced. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX) reintroduced Faster FOIA legislation, which seeks to reduce the backlog of FOIA requests throughout the federal government.

Reports

OMB Watch published an analysis of the government's FY 2010 FOIA reports. The analysis found that several openness indicators have improved, some for the first time in years, yet most remain worse than their average during the George W. Bush administration. The analysis concluded that though the Obama administration is making progress, the process remains far from complete.

OMB Watch also published a detailed assessment of the Obama administration's progress on implementing the open government community's 2008 transparency recommendations. The assessment explains the activities of the administration and Congress on the issues addressed in the wide-ranging recommendations and offers some insights on those actions. The report concludes that the administration has made significant strides in just two years but that much more remains to be done to create an open and accountable government

The National Security Archive released its annual FOIA audit showing that significantly more agencies were aware of and acting on the Obama administration's transparency policies than in 2009. However, several agencies still could not show any activities undertaken to implement the Obama administration's new policies.

OpenTheGovernment.org released an audit that shows that most agencies do not provide online access to key accountability information. Between Data.gov and the required open government plans, many agencies have made significant progress in providing data related to their specific mission or area of focus, but the report highlights the reality that most agencies have overlooked disclosure about basic government activities such as contracting.

Awards

The National Freedom of Information Act Hall of Fame inducted its five latest members, including OMB Watch's Sean Moulton. The FOIA Hall of Fame was established to honor those individuals who have helped establish, defend, and utilize the legal basis for our right to know.

The American Library Association (ALA) presented its 2011 James Madison Award to Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org. The James Madison Award was established by the ALA in 1986 to honor individuals or groups who have championed, protected, and promoted public access to government information on the national level. OMB Watch is a member of the OpenTheGovernment.org coalition, and McDermott is a former OMB Watch staff member.

The American Society of News Editors announced the winners of its Local Heroes contest, recognizing achievements in improving state and local transparency.