This Fourth of July marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which as President Obama declared, "is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government." In July 2015, OIP launched a pilot program with the participation of seven agency volunteers to assess the feasibility of a policy that would entail not only releasing FOIA processed records to one requester, but to the public at large by having the agency post them online. Today, and in celebration of the FOIA’s 50th anniversary, OIP is pleased to release its report on this pilot along with its analysis and next steps.
In his 2009 FOIA Memorandum, President Obama directed agencies to take affirmative steps to make information available to the public. Likewise, the Department of Justice in its 2009 FOIA Guidelines stressed the importance of proactive disclosures and has encouraged agencies to engage in an ongoing effort to identify records of interest to the public and to post them online. The pilot sought to answer many important questions on the feasibility of a “release to one/release to all” policy, including the:
- costs associated with such a policy,
- effect on staff time for those who process requests,
- effect on interactions with government stakeholders, and the
- justification for any exceptions to such a policy, such as for personal privacy.
The agencies that participated in the pilot are the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and components or offices of the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice, and the National Archives and Records Administration. Throughout the pilot, OIP collected metrics, provided guidance, and answered questions from the participating agencies and solicited feedback from the public. All of the information collected from agencies and received from the public has been incorporated into the assessment.
Analyzing the pilot results revealed that a broad implementation of the “release to one/release to all” policy will require the active participation of a range of offices within each agency. Not only will FOIA offices need to be engaged in this process but, more significantly, the Web teams or IT offices who provide the technical assistance in preparing documents for posting will need to develop workflows and plans to accommodate the increased volume of postings that would occur as a result of implementation. Additionally, time and financial resources may need to be reallocated. Given these factors, the engagement of agency Chief FOIA Officers is critical to expanding the “release to one/release to all” policy more broadly across the government.
As a result of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, Chief FOIA Officers will serve on a newly-created Chief FOIA Officers Council. The Department of Justice will present the results of its "release to one/release to all" pilot as the first item for the new Council to consider and will seek the assistance of the Council in determining the best way forward.
Alongside these efforts, OIP will continue to engage with agencies on the implementation of this policy. OIP will also continue to ask agencies to include in their Chief FOIA Officer Reports details about their efforts regarding proactive disclosures in general and “release to one/release to all” efforts in particular. All agencies are encouraged to use the results of this pilot as a guide while the Chief FOIA Officers Council begins its work, and we encourage everyone to review OIP’s full report on this pilot.