I want to thank everyone for being here today. Sunshine Week is an important week for those of us who believe that government works best when the country knows what its government is doing. It is an opportunity to thank the many people inside and outside of government who have gotten us here, think about where we have to go next, and recommit ourselves to the goal of ensuring that government is open and transparent.
We all know that the work of openness is rarely glamorous. In the FOIA world, where I know many of us work, openness happens page-by-page and hour-by-hour. We’re always looking for ways to process that one more document before the end of the day, or to identify that additional portion of a document that we can release, or to scour our agencies to find another set of documents that we should put up on our websites and make available proactively. So I know we spend a lot of the year with our heads down, doing our best to get it done, and, on behalf of the Attorney General, I want to thank all of you for your efforts.
Although it may not be glamorous work, it’s work that President Obama has told us is critical. The Administration’s openness initiatives – which involve the three principles of participation, collaboration, and transparency – are a set of initiatives that are central to this President’s approach to governing. Where we can open up the process of governing, and enlist our fellow citizens to participate in solving the challenges we face, we’re all going to be better off. And where we can activelyidentify ways to collaborate to find solutions, we need to – for the benefit of the American people..
Most relevant for us on the FOIA front is transparency. The value of transparency comes from the belief that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the recognition that we had better do our best, and act in a way that would make the public proud if they saw everything we did. Transparency is about more than just the “threat” of public disclosure, though, and the notion of keeping government “honest.” It’s about making government, and making the public who becomes informed by our transparency, the best that we all can be. There will always be information that we can’t share, but those of you in this room are fulfilling on a very basic principle of democracy: that if we give people the information, they will create a better government.
So the directives that we’re implementing from the President and the Attorney General are not just one more policy to fulfill one more statutory obligation. We want to be aiming at something more transformative than that. Where there has been a culture of “protecting” information that one could credibly withhold, we want to replace it with a culture of pushing out – and affirmatively pushing out – the information that will empower us to a better, more informed relationship with our government.
This is an issue we take particular pride in here at the Department of Justice, thanks to the great work that Melanie Pustay and the Office of Information Policy engage in with all of your agencies, and where we have special statutory responsibilities to offer guidance on the FOIA and do our best to support you in your work. So I would be remiss if I did not take a minute to highlight what the Department of Justice has done, and what we are doing.
If you look at the numbers, we had a pretty good year. We released more documents than we have in any year in recent memory, since the Department was reorganized. The number of our full releases jumped significantly, both in total and as a percentage of requests processed: We went from releasing full records in response to 34% of the total number of requests in 2008, to 36% in 2009, to 42% of all requests in 2010, the first full year of this Administration. That is a very significant turn in the battleship, amounting to nearly 5,000 additional full releases over the year before. And we continued to increase the percentage of partial releases, too.
I won’t tell you this was easy; it took strong direction from the top of the organization and a real commitment of resources. Making full and partial releases can take extra time, because going through a redaction process is a lot more laborious than simply denying a request because you had the legal right to deny it. But we didn’t let this openness slow us down. We processed more documents than we had in any year since the Department was reorganized in 2002. Our backlog grew a little – by about 200 requests – but when you receive several thousand more requests than you had in previous years, I’m awfully proud of our record year of processing. So I’d like to thank our folks here at DOJ.
I know we weren’t alone. Across 25 of the largest agencies, the numbers show a shift in how we’re responding to FOIA requests. We again saw a continued increase in the percentage of requests that resulted in releases, a trend that we are continuing since 2008. But what is really interesting is what you see in those requests: We’re shifting from partial releases to full releases. Where we once might have looked at a document, noticed a piece that could be released, and redacted the rest, we’re now more often determining that we can release the whole thing. Our full releases went up, both in total and as a percentage of requests processed. That’s good news, because it means that we are taking that second look to see if there is more we can release. Thank you to all of the FOIA professionals in the audience for your work and your dedication.
As we look forward, today we are pleased to unveil an initiative that we think will help us keep moving on this path, and will make FOIA easier for the thousands of Americans who use it to find out more about their government or to gain access to information that can make their lives better. This morning we launched FOIA.gov. It’s a site that has two purposes: It provides the public with a centralized, accessible resource that explains the FOIA process. It gives guidance on what is accessible through FOIA, explains how to make a request – and how to target a request at the information that is really sought, and points users to other sources of data that they can obtain with a mouseclick, and without going through the FOIA process. The site is designed not just to make FOIA easier. It tries to make FOIA better.
Second, the site also aims to help make us better, as federal agencies, at how we administer FOIA. It does so by employing a basic principle of openness: when everyone can see how we’re doing, we’ll strive to do better. So at FOIA.gov, we’ll have a dashboard that shows how we’re doing across our agencies. If you want to see which agencies have the most releases, you can find that here. If you want to see whether an agency is invoking exemptions more or less than it was in the past, you can chart that here. FOIA.gov creates an incentive to improve performance by being transparent about transparency.
The end goal of this, we hope, will be that you won’t have to wait until Sunshine Week each year to take credit for the good work you’re doing. When your agency has a release worth highlighting, let us know, and we can shine the spotlight on it. When you’ve got the numbers to show big improvements, they’ll be up on the site. You all have done a lot to fulfill the President’s commitments on openness, and while it’s an issue we have to make progress on every day, this is a good week to stand up and be appreciated.