Open Government MAGIC: Media Access to Government Information Conference

The right of the governed to gain access to information about their government is a core pillar of the compact between “We the People” in the United States and those they elect to office. The quality, breadth and depth of that access, however, is often troubled.

Today in Washington, the Media Access to Government Information Conference (MAGIC) will explore these issues from within the august halls of the National Archives. MAGIC is a collaborative, one-day conference sponsored by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy. The primary focus of the conference is to highlight how journalists and others writing about public affairs can gain better access to government records by journalists. A liveblog of the proceedings, agenda and associated papers are embedded below:

Program and Papers

9:00-9:20 Welcome by David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, NARA; Sanford Ungar, President Goucher College, and Member, Public Interest Declassification Board

9:20-10:30 Session 1: Media Access to Federal Government Records

Journalists and NGO participants on this panel will address how FOIA and access to federal records might be re-tooled as the federal government implements its open government and transparency policies. Government panelists will describe their vision for how new policies and technologies are changing access to government records. Additional topics may include:

  • Institutionalizing the release of common records used to monitor agency activity rather than waiting for FOIA requests to come in;
  • Centralizing, updating, and documenting information systems on agency FOIA websites; and
  • Building openness into administrative (records collecting) systems that are eventually released to the public.

Moderator: Irene Wu, Director of Research, SAND-MNIA International Bureau, FCC

  • Gary Bass, Founder and Executive Director, OMB Watch;
    (Paper)
  • Sarah Cohen, Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy, Duke University;

    (Comments)
  • William Kammer, Chief, FOIA Division, U.S. Department of Defense, and Vice President, American Society of Access Professionals;
  • Miriam Nisbet, Director, Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), NARA
    (Paper)

10:30-10:45 Morning Break

10:45-Noon Session 2: Technical Hurdles, Research Solutions

Journalists on the panel will identify specific technical problems in dealing with government records at federal, state, local, and tribal levels. Government officials will identify specific technical solutions or research agendas to find solutions to these problems. Additional topics may include:

  • Re-tooling internal government information systems to improve the quality of records release;
  • Government agency support of research to improve the mining and analyzing of documents not born digital, handwritten responses on forms, and audio/video of government proceedings; and
  • Insights into emerging technologies and cyber infrastructure that may facilitate media access to government records.

Moderator: Robert Chadduck, Acting Director, National Archives Center for Advanced Systems and Technologies (NCAST), NARA

  • David Donald, Data Editor, Center for Public Integrity
    (Comments)
  • Richard Marciano, Professor and Director @ Sustainable Archives and Leveraging Technologies group, UNC School of Information and Library Science
  • George Strawn, Director, National Coordination Office, Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) Program
  • Ken Thibodeau, Former Director (Retired), National Archives Center for Advanced Systems and Technologies (NCAST)
  • Derek Willis, Web developer, New York Times
    (Comments)

Noon-1:30 Luncheon

1:30-2:45 Session 3: Access to State, Local, and Tribal Government Records

Journalists on this panel will identify issues that arise frequently in seeking records at state, local, and tribal levels. Government panelists will discuss possible solutions to making these records more easily available, and how different levels of government may leverage IT to improve access to records. Additional topics may include:

  • Types of records sought at state, local, and tribal level;
  • Special challenges in variations in open access policies across states and localities; and
  • Federal funds expenditure rules that might trigger more transparency at state and local level.

Moderator: David McMillen, NARA External Affairs Liaison

2:45-3:15 Afternoon Break

3:15-4:30 Session 4: Private Sector Actions

NGO participants will discuss how they work to improve access to records, including participation in discussions to retool government records systems for better access by journalists. Additional topics may include:

  • What transparency advocates, journalism organizations, foundations, and academics could do to support access policies; and
  • The development of tools to aid in the analysis of government records.

Moderator: James Hamilton, Director, DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, Duke University

  • Bill Allison, Editorial Director, Sunlight Foundation
  • Rick Blum, Coordinator, The Sunshine in Government Initiative
    (Paper)
  • Danielle Brian, Executive Director and Project on Government Oversight
    Bryan Rahija, Blog Editor, Project on Government Oversight
    (Paper)
  • Charles Lewis, Executive Editor, Investigative Reporting Workshop and Professor, School of Communication, American University

Improving open government oversight through FOIA reform

The Freedom of Information Act is one of the primary levers by which journalists, government watchdogs and other organizations can hold the United States government accountable. Today in Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on “The Freedom of Information Act: Crowd-Sourcing Government Oversight.
Full House Oversight and Reform Committee

The testimony of the witnesses made it clear that major issues persist with the cost, mechanism and compliance with FOIA requests made to government agencies.

Public information should be online in real time, said Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) (@DarrellIssa), chairman of the committee.

His prepared statement provided context for the focus of the hearing:

The Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) is one of the most important tools for government transparency and accountability. It permits the private-sector, the media, watchdog groups, and the general public to scrutinize the activities of federal agencies – from the telephone logs and email correspondence of federal employees to internal memoranda, transcripts, and meeting minutes.

Minus a few specific exemptions designed to protect narrowly-defined privacy concerns, national security and law enforcement matters, claims of executive privilege and trade secrets, information about the government’s work is required by law to be publicly accessible. Indeed, every federal agency, commission, department and corporation – as well as the White House itself – falls under FOIA’s expansive authority.

Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) defended the record of the Obama administration on open government and quoted President James Madison in his opening statement:

A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, , and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselve with the power knowledge gives.”

Rep. Cummings introduced a new bill today, entitled the “Transparency and Openness in Government Act.” (As of the time this post went live, it was not in Thomas.gov yet.) According to Rep. Cummings, the bill would make federal commissions more transparent, increase access to records, ensure government email records were preserved and improve GAO access to govt records. The legislation includes five bills that passed the House during the 111th Congress:

  • The Federal Advisory Committee Act requires agencies to disclose more information about advisory committees and closes existing loopholes;
  • The Presidential Records Act increases public access to White House records by establishing statutory procedures prior to FOIA releases;
  • The Presidential Libraries Donation Reform Act mandates greater public disclosure of library donor information;
  • The Electronic Message Preservation Act modernizesthe Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act to ensure that White House and agency e-mail records are preserved;
  • The GAO Improvement Act strengthens the authority of the Government Accountability Office to access agency records.

Transparency shouldn’t be a partisan issue, emphasized Cummings.

Miriam Nisbit of OGIS

The committee heard from a distinguished panel of witnesses, including Miriam Nesbit, the director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) at the National Archives and Records Administration. OGIS opened in September 2009 and acts as an ombudsman for FOIA request. “OGIS encourages a more collaborative, accessible FOIA for everyone,” said Nisbet.

While both witnesses and congressmen recognized that the Department of Justice launched FOIA.gov at the outset of Sunshine Week, “there is the awkward fact the Justice Department’s own FOIA backlog has not been reduced in the past year,” observed Daniel Metcalfe, executive director of Collaboration on Government Secrecy.

The costs of FOIA are part of that story. “In 2010, agencies reported nearly $400 million to process FOIA requests,” testified Rick Blum of SunshineInGovernment.org.

There’s also the issue of agencies and officials claimed exemptions to requests. Blum noted that for Sunshine Week, ProPublica created a searchable database of FOIA exemptions.

These claimed exemptions extend to the White House. Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch challenged the Secret Services’ contention that visitor logs are not subject to FOIA.

While the Project of Government Oversight’s Angela Canterbury gave the administration credit for proactive information release at USASpending.gov, Data.gov, Recovery.gov and FOIA.gov, she acknowledged that “if FOIA is the yardstick for openness, then we haven’t gotten very far yet.”

The issue lies is in the default towards secrecy versus openness. “Too often, overt secrecy has not only impaired the promise of FOIA but also has put the American people at risk,” said Canterbury.

That said, Daniel Metcalfe did offer recognition of President Obama’s elevation of open government in his administration, including a speech at the United Nations where openness was highlighted in an “unprecedented” way.

The written testimony of the witnesses is linked below. Video of the hearing will be available through the tireless efforts of citizen archivist Carl Malamud at House.Resource.org later in the week.