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Thinking about the future of FOIA: Proactive Disclosure

News that the Faster FOIA Act passed the Senate last week has all of us at OGIS thinking about changes we’d like to see made to make FOIA work better. Though the future of Faster FOIA is uncertain — it is headed to the House for consideration — it has contributed to the already considerable momentum around possible changes to FOIA.

According to the OPEN Government Act of 2007 — the legislation that created OGIS — part of the OGIS mission is to “recommend policy changes to the Congress and President to improve the administration of FOIA.” Our role as the Federal FOIA ombudsman provides us with a unique perspective on what is working (and what is not) at agency FOIA shops across the government. These observations help us target areas of FOIA that need attention.

We at OGIS are not the only ones who have been doing some serious thinking about FOIA reform; in particular, the issue of proactive disclosure — including records that agencies must make available under FOIA Subsection (a)(2) — has received a great deal of attention lately. Among open government groups, OpenTheGovernment.org has been quite active regarding not just FOIA but the larger topic of government openness.

John Podesta, the President and CEO of the Center for American Progress, testified on the issue of proactive disclosure before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary on March 15, 2011. In his testimony, Podesta suggested that technology be applied to proactive disclosure through a mechanism he calls “automatic Internet disclosure.” He advocates for the development of specific standards for what agencies must automatically disclose and the establishment of central online repositories for disclosures where the public can find related information across agencies.

At the recent Media Access to Government Information Conference (MAGIC), Gary Bass, Executive Director of OMB Watch, outlined his ideas for disclosure standards that he proposes be applied to every agency within the Federal government. Duke University professor Sarah Cohen, who used FOIA as a reporter for The Washington Post, spoke at the same conference. Cohen proposed ways to enforce proactive disclosure and outlined how records disclosed proactively might be best organized and disseminated on the Web.

It is fascinating to hear experts weigh in on a subject, so we are very interested to hear what FOIA requesters and agency FOIA staff have to say about proactive disclosure. Make your voice heard in the comments below!