Open government one-Year Assessment: April, 2011
The Department of Justice has embraced the President’s call for this administration to be the most transparent, participatory and collaborative ever. As early as March 2009, the Attorney General issued new guidelines for responding to requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), with a focus on a presumption of disclosure. Those FOIA Guidelines also emphasize that compliance with the FOIA is the responsibility of every employee, not just FOIA professionals, and that each Department employee must begin thinking in new ways about increasing transparency.
Along with a presumption of disclosure, employees have been exhorted not only to re-think longtime practices regarding the withholding of information, but also to anticipate public interest in records and actively engage in making proactive releases of information or data before FOIA requests are even made. Components have contacted the Open Government Working Group offering to provide data for posting, or suggesting significant briefs for uploading.
The Department’s Plan for becoming more open, transparent and accessible to the public was first published in April 2010, and updated in June 2010. Key specific initiatives promised in the Plan are listed below, along with their status as of April 2011.
As its “flagship initiative,” the Department pledged a new “FOIA Dashboard” to enable the public to track and measure FOIA compliance for all 97 agencies subject to the FOIA. The concept for the site was to display graphically the data contained in agency Annual FOIA Reports. As it was being developed, the Department continued to add features to the new site, greatly expanding its scope, so that the site is now an all new one-stop shop both for those interested in agency compliance with the FOIA and those interested in accessing information through the law.
As a comprehensive public resource for government-wide FOIA compliance data, FOIA.Gov displays graphically a wealth of data on agency FOIA processing, including the numbers of FOIA requests made and processed by each agency, the disposition of those requests, the time taken to respond, and any backlogs of pending requests. That data can be compared and contrasted between agencies and over time. Users can select the criteria they want to examine and then run a report on the site. The Department also generates reports that would be of interest to the public and includes those on the site.
As an educational resource, FOIA.Gov contains material about how the FOIA works and what to expect during the process, and also provides contact information for all government agencies with links to their FOIA websites. Explanatory videos are embedded in the site, and frequently asked questions and a glossary of FOIA terms are included, all to enhance public understanding of the FOIA process. There are links spotlighting significant releases made by agencies, both to highlight the work of agencies and to provide the public with examples of the types of documents made available under the FOIA. There is also a section on FOIA news. The expanded dashboard went live in March 2011.
In the Plan, the Department committed to undertaking a review of its FOIA regulations. As the primary agency responsible for the implementation of FOIA across the government, the Department demonstrated its leadership by announcing during Sunshine Week (March 14-21) that it had finalized its proposed new FOIA regulations. The new regulations are updated and streamlined, and reflect developments in the case law and changes to the FOIA statute. The proposed regulations were published in the Federal Register for public comment on March 21, 2011.
Attorney General Calendar
We have begun posting the calendar of the Attorney General online. In order to be sure that sensitive privacy, law enforcement or litigation interests are not compromised, the calendar must be carefully scrutinized before posting. However, the Attorney General believes that his meetings and activities should be accessible by the public. Thus, redactions have been kept to a minimum, consistent with the principles laid out in the Attorney Generals FOIA guidelines. Members of the Open Government Working Group have also offered to advise other agencies on how to go about posting the calendars of their senior leaders. In order to balance pending requests for past calendars with interest in more recent calendars, the Department is processing alternating batches of early and more current calendars.
Compared to other departments and agencies, the Department of Justice does not generate an enormous amount of data. However, we have made significant strides in posting on Data.gov such data sets as we believe are of interest and value to the public. In addition, numerous data sets of primary value to researchers are being made available through the University of Michigan Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research. The ICPSR also assists the Department in preparing data for public release on Data.gov.
The Department's Open Government Working Group is continuing a number of efforts to identify and locate additional valuable data and to make it available in searchable format online. As of early April 2011, 115 data sets had been posted on Data.gov, with 2,700 hits or downloads weekly. The data now available, as promised in our Open Government Plan, include: Annual Survey of Jails from 1985; Chapter 7 Trustee Final Reports Summary back to CY 2000; and Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) Claims Summary Reports back to 1992. Newly released data also include five legal data sets that previously were not easily discoverable and are now found in the Law Data community on Data.gov.
Further, the Department has adopted a presumption that when an office or division of the Department publishes a report that summarizes quantitative data that the office or division has collected, the component will also make the underlying data available through an appropriate channel.
We will soon begin posting legislative histories compiled by DOJ librarians on laws that were deemed of interest to the Department or laws in which the Department took a vital role in securing. Also ready for posting soon is a compilation of statements and speeches of the Attorneys General dating back to 1933.
Even before the publication of the Plan, and the subsequent creation of the Justice.gov/open page, the Department redesigned and refreshed the websites of all leadership offices, major divisions and a number of key program offices to improve the content quality and organization. By standardizing the Justice.gov template, the Department has made it easier to navigate its website and find information. Whenever possible, content has been rewritten in plain language to make it more accessible and easier to understand. In addition, we have given prominence to the top tasks our website customers need by highlighting them on our homepage and in key places throughout the site.
Significant Court Findings
In the Plan, we committed to posting online each week the most significant court filings from each of the Departments litigating divisions. The filings would be searchable by a number of different variables, including division, court, case name and number, name of filing, date, etc. The site would also generate an RSS/XML feed as briefs are posted. IT resource constraints have set this project back and at present we cannot give an estimated completion date. However, in the interim, the Departments litigating offices have separately begun routinely posting more of their briefs and other filings to their own webpages.
In keeping with the Presidents and Attorney Generals call for increased transparency accomplished without the need for the public to file FOIA requests, in our Plan we committed to more proactive disclosures. We have already begun posting a Directory of Department Officials, and each components webpage also displays a link to its own Directory. Most Congressional testimony of the Departments leadership is already posted, but we are working toward better routinizing the process. Similarly, a task force is working to identify all reports to Congress suitable for making public, with a view toward posting them in a more accessible way. The Departments components have also posted a wide variety of information proactively on their websites. For example, the FBI launched a new online Vault that contains more than 2,000 documents from a wide variety of historical FBI files.
In the course of soliciting public suggestions for a flagship initiative, many public commenters expressed interest in an improved Foreign Agents Registration Act process. Although those suggestions were not included in the original Open Government Plan, the Department is now responding to make its Foreign Agents Registration Act data available in easily accessible format. Already it has announced the launch of a system for the electronic filing of registration statements and supplements with the Department. Called FARA eFile, the system enables FARA registrants to electronically file documents with the FARA Registration Unit, providing an enhancement to the FARA website. FARA eFile will result in more timely public disclosure and transparency while promoting more efficient practices.