White House Report Outlines New Transparency Efforts

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Report reveals administration plans to create a web portal for Freedom of Information Act requests.

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The White House recently released a report on proposed actions the administration is planning to take to improve government transparency.  Among other ideas, the report reveals administration plans to create a new web portal that would facilitate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and refer those requests to appropriate agencies.

FOIA requesters currently face a challenge because different government agencies have different FOIA request procedures and agencies are not coordinated well with each other.  Requestors must determine which agencies they should file a request with, and then learn what they need to do to file a request with those agencies.  The new portal would create a uniform system for handling these requests that would span multiple agencies.

The report also indicates that the administration will explore the possibility of creating a common set of FOIA rules and practices applicable to various federal agencies.

One goal of the administration’s plans is to reduce request backlogs and processing times.  The administration intends to scale-up changes some agencies have adopted in their FOIA process that have proven effective, although the plan does not identify agency initiatives that have proven successful.  Nor does the report does not indicate that the administration is planning to allocate new funding to improve FOIA request processing time – an issue that generated criticism from one commentator when the administration released previous reports on transparency.  Nevertheless, the report does indicate that expanded FOIA training for agency employees is expected.

Perhaps in an effort to identify more “best practices” to seize on, the administration is also planning to create a FOIA Modernization Advisory Committee to “foster dialogue” between the requestors and agencies on how to improve the FOIA system for all parties.

Addressing transparency efforts beyond FOIA, the report indicates that the administration intends to improve Data.gov, a website which aims to release large amounts of government data to the public.  According to the report, the “new Data.gov will index all Federal agency datasets in one easy-to-use catalog.”

The administration is specifically interested in releasing more agriculture and nutrition data, disaster response data, as well as financial data related to the Department of the Interior’s management of natural resources.  For example, as part of the push to release more natural resource related financial data, the administration intends to publish annual reports that indicate how much the United States spends on fossil fuel subsidies each year.

The recently-released report does not explain who will be responsible for improving Data.gov nor how much such improvements will cost.  Both issues seem relevant given the administration’s problems developing an effective Healthcare.gov insurance exchange.

The administration anticipates releasing a more expansive report on these plans later this month as part of its second “U.S. Open Government National Action Plan.”  The first report was released in 2011.  The administration claims in its recent report that 24 of 26 commitments it announced in its 2011 action plan have already been met.