New Federal Agency Hits the Ground Running with Proactive Standards for the Release of Information
by Gavin Baker, 6/27/2012
A new federal agency is making a strong start out of the box by establishing a proactive policy of releasing information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). FOIA regulations published today by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) include an important clause committing the agency to proactively disclose the information it collects. The agency adopted the policy in response to a recommendation by OMB Watch.
Since FOIA passed in 1966, agencies have been required to proactively disclose certain information. Proactive disclosure – releasing information without waiting for a formal request – makes government information more widely and easily available to the public. It provides more timely information (no need to wait for a request to be filled) and can save costs for agencies by reducing duplicate requests. Proactive disclosure also reinforces, to agencies and citizens, the fact that government information is public information and should be accessible to citizens except in strictly limited circumstances.
The Internet has made proactive disclosure easier and more useful than ever, and policymakers have tried to ensure actual practices realize those possibilities. In 1996, the Electronic FOIA Amendments required agencies to proactively disclose some information online, including any released document likely to be requested again. On his first full day in office, President Obama directed agencies to "take affirmative steps to make information public," an admonition reiterated in Attorney General Eric Holder's 2009 FOIA guidance. But to date, most agencies have not yet built proactive disclosure standards into their own FOIA rules.
Congress created SIGAR in 2008 to oversee the billions of public dollars in Afghanistan reconstruction projects by conducting audits and investigations. SIGAR's new FOIA rules say the agency will "identify records of interest to the public that are appropriate for public disclosure, and then post these records." OMB Watch staff had urged the agency to add this clause after the agency's issued interim FOIA rules in March, without a mention of proactive disclosure.
In the notice publishing the rules, SIGAR also states that it is researching how to post more of its FOIA responses online. This will become easier when the multi-agency FOIA portal launches in the fall. Any agency that joins the portal will be able to automatically publish online its response to any FOIA request. The result will be a treasure trove of online information available to the public without needing to file a request.
SIGAR is creating a quality FOIA process that puts into practice the president’s transparency goals and could reduce duplicative FOIA costs. By embracing a policy of proactive disclosure, the SIGAR rules are a good example for other agencies to follow.