Friday, March 16, 2012

Monitoring America's Freedom of Information Act

Over the past couple of years I've taken it upon myself to monitor agencies' compliance with the Official Information Act here in New Zealand. In many jurisdictions, this is a legal requirement, and the Law Commission raised that prospect in its issues paper on the OIA [PDF] back in 2010 (their final report should be due out in a few months).

One of the countries which requires monitoring is the US. Unfortunately, its not working so well. An investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has found that eleven of 17 Cabinet-level agencies are failing to keep proper request logs, required for monitoring:

The report does not probe how often agencies grant or deny Freedom of Information Act requests, but instead focuses on a key facet of FOIA law requiring agencies to track every request made by people or organizations for public information. The committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), asked 100 large and small federal agencies to provide information on their FOIA tracking systems. Each agency received a letter grade based on a seven-point criteria, including whether agencies produced digitized records that included the date of a request, the name of the requester and a description of the information requested.

“A number of agencies demonstrated that they are able to track basic information about requests, while others either would not or could not provide such information as requested,” the report said. The fact that several agencies “struggle to demonstrate transparency about very basic information is troubling and necessitates greater scrutiny.”

In its report [PDF], the Committee comments:
One can imagine the difficulty journalists or ordinary citizens face in submitting requests to FOIA offices that cannot or will not even provide basic information to a Congressional Committee that exercises jurisdiction over FOIA about its efforts to manage and track requests.
I think this shows the value of outside monitoring. its not enough simply to require agencies to keep logs; someone has to actually look at them regularly to check compliance with the law (both on keeping logs, and on handling requests). Hopefully, we'll get such a body in New Zealand in the near future.