Reforms to improve U.S. government accountability

Alexander B. Howard and Patrice McDermott in Science: “Five decades after the United States first enacted the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Congress has voted to make the first major reforms to the statute since 2007. President Lyndon Johnson signed the first FOIA on 4 July 1966, enshrining in law the public’s right to access to information from executive branch government agencies. Scientists and others around the world can use the FOIA to learn what the U.S. government has done in its policies and practices. Proposed reforms should be a net benefit to public understanding of the scientific process and knowledge, by increasing the access of scientists to archival materials and reducing the likelihood of science and scientists being suppressed by official secrecy or bureaucracy.

Although the FOIA has been important for accountability, reform is sorely needed. An analysis of the 15 federal government agencies that received the most FOIA requests found poor to abysmal compliance rates (1, 2). In 2016, the Associated Press found that the Obama Administration had set a new record for unfulfilled FOIA requests (3). Although that has to be considered in the context of a rise in request volume without commensurate increases in resources to address them, researchers have found that most agencies simply ignore routine requests for travel schedules (4). An audit of 165 federal government agencies found that only 40% complied with the E-FOIA Act of 1996; just 67 of them had online libraries that were regularly updated with a substantial number of documents released under FOIA (5).

In the face of growing concerns about compliance, FOIA reform was one of the few recent instances of bicameral bipartisanship in Congress, with both the House and Senate each passing bills this spring with broad support. Now that Congress moved to send the Senate bill on to the president to sign into law, implementation of specific provisions will bear close scrutiny, including the potential impact of disclosure upon scientists who work in or with government agencies (6). Proposed revisions to the FOIA statute would improve how government discloses information to the public, while leaving intact exemptions for privacy, proprietary information, deliberative documents, and national security.

Features of Reforms

One of the major reforms in the House and Senate bills was to codify the “presumption of openness” outlined by President Obama the day after he took office in January 2009 when he declared that FOIA should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, “openness” would prevail. This presumption of openness was affirmed by U.S. Attorney General Holder in March 2009. Although these declarations have had limited effect in the agencies (as described above), codifying these reforms into law is crucial not only to ensure that this remains executive branch policy after this president leaves office but also to provide requesters with legal force beyond an executive order….(More)”