Opening Access to Federal Reports
by Gavin Baker, 8/13/2010
Each year, Congress requires thousands of reports from federal agencies, containing information on nearly every conceivable aspect of government. In fact, merely the list of those reports is over 200 pages long. But there is no organized method for the public to access those reports. A new bill would change that.
On July 30, Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-OH) introduced the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act (H.R. 6026). The bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Edolphus Towns (D-NY) and William Lacy Clay (D-MO), chairs of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and its Information Policy, Census and National Archives subcommittee, respectively.
H.R. 6026 would require the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to establish a website to provide free public access to congressionally-mandated reports within 30 days after they are submitted to Congress. The requirement would apply to executive agencies; the bill specifically excludes the Government Accountability Office. Reports from judicial and legislative agencies, such as the Congressional Research Service, are also excluded. It’s not clear whether the bill is meant to apply to congressionally-mandated reports by the National Academies, which are prepared independently but often commissioned by an agency.
Reports containing information exempted from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) nevertheless would be required to be included. The bill would limit agencies to redacting only specific FOIA-exempt information and would require them to identify the relevant exemption for each redaction.
H.R. 6026 is a positive step to improve government transparency. However, it could be stronger. The site the bill would create should list all mandated reports, regardless of whether they’ve been delivered yet, so the public can identify missing and overdue reports. The bill also lacks a specific requirement that reports be available in a full-text, searchable format. Additionally, an ideal “Reports.gov” should be planned to expand and provide access to reports government-wide, not just those mandated by Congress. Hopefully, such improvements will be incorporated as H.R. 6026 advances.
Image by Christian Guthier. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.