Sunshine Week: In Celebration of Open Government
Lisa Ellman and Melanie Ann Pustay
March 11, 2013
09:59 AM EDT
Ed. Note: This post is the first in a Sunshine Week series on whitehouse.gov. Sunshine Week is a national initiative to celebrate and focus on government transparency and open government.
As President Barack Obama has stated, "Openness will strengthen our democracy, and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government." This week, we celebrate Sunshine Week -- an appropriate time to discuss the importance of open government and freedom of information, and to take stock of how far we have come, and think about what more can be done.
Over the last few weeks, we have asked for your feedback on some of our open government efforts, and you have responded, whether in meetings with civil society or viaQuora, or a web form on WhiteHouse.gov. We thank you for taking the time to talk to us about this important work, and we hear you – and we will continue to consult with you.
In the spirit of Sunshine Week, the White House will highlight one initiative a day which demonstrates the Obama Administration’s continued commitment to open and accessible government. Today, we will focus on progress made improving the administration of the FOIA. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." In our democracy, FOIA, which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open government.
As President Obama declared in his landmark Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) issued on his first full day in Office: “A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.” The FOIA – which provides the public with a statutory right to request and receive information from their government – is a key way in which government transparency is realized.
Over the past four years agencies have been working hard to improve their administration of the FOIA under guidance issued by Attorney General Holder. That guidance directed agencies to apply a presumption of openness in responding to requests and to make it a priority to respond promptly. Both the President and Attorney General stressed that it is also vital for agencies to make information available proactively, without the need to make a request, so that what is “known and done by their Government” is readily available to all. These directives are taking hold across the agencies and real improvements are being made.
In Fiscal Year 2012, the government as a whole:
- Processed more FOIA requests: Agencies processed 665,924 total requests. This is a 5.5 percent increase over the total number of requests processed last fiscal year.
- Decreased the FOIA request backlog: The efforts of agencies to increase the numbers of requests processed has paid off as the government was able to reduce its backlog of pending requests by 14 percent from last year. The current backlog marks a 45 percent reduction from the backlog that existed four years ago in 2008.
- Maintained a release rate above 92 percent for the fourth straight year: Of the 464,985 requests processed by agencies for disclosure, the government released records either in full or in part in response to 93.4 percent of these requests. For half of those requests all the information was released, with nothing withheld. This marks the fourth year in a row where the number of responses to FOIA requests providing a release of information either in full or in part exceeded 92 percent of the requests processed for disclosure.
- Improved average processing times: Agencies improved the average processing times for all categories of requests.
- Disclosed more information proactively: Agencies met public demand for information by posting a wide range of material on their websites, allowing the public to easily find information of interest without the need to make a FOIA request.
All of the detailed data on agency FOIA compliance from Fiscal Year 2012 is compiled and displayed graphically on the Department of Justice’s government FOIA website FOIA.gov, providing a clear picture of government FOIA administration and progress during the last fiscal year.
These are more than just statistics. They represent the efforts of agencies across the government to answer the call to improve transparency. They demonstrate that agencies are responding to requests more quickly and releasing more information when they do. Agencies are reducing backlogs of pending requests and helping eliminate the need to even make requests by proactively providing information online. The public is the beneficiary of this progress. While there is more work to be done, this past year demonstrates that agencies are answering the President’s and Attorney General’s call for greater transparency.