House Examines the Role of Technology in Transparency

Policy Intern Cassandra LaRussa wrote this post.

On Wednesday, the role of technology in government transparency was the subject of a hearing held by the Technology Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The hearing explored federal agency commitments to transparency in light of Obama’s “presumption of openness” doctrine, and discussed how transparency can be improved using a variety of tools available to the public online.

Much of the hearing focused on a new FOIA module developed by the Environmental Protection Agency. The online portal, expected to launch in October, will include frequently requested documents from across all participating federal agencies, a streamlined FOIA request process, a FOIA request tracker, and statistics on FOIA requests. Witnesses agreed that the number of FOIA requests has greatly increased in recent years, and the EPA’s module will make the FOIA process more consistent and efficient for both federal agencies and for the public.

All four witnesses agreed that while there has been varied but significant improvement in federal agency openness, the government must continue to take advantage of improved technology in order to eliminate barriers to information.

Melanie Ann Pustay, Director of the Office of Information Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice, highlighted increased “proactive posting” of agency documents, as well as updated websites and more efficient search functions. She also emphasized a new initiative to standardize tagging of released records in order to make it easier for inquiring members of the public to search through information that is already available on agency websites.

The panelists and committee members also discussed information redaction in released documents. The nine FOIA exemptions, such as national security and personal privacy concerns, help preserve security while allowing public access to information. Miriam Nisbet, Director of the Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives & Records Administration, explained that scanning documents for potential redaction can add to FOIA request processing times, and there are often difficult judgement calls to be made when determining whether or not a document can be released to the public.

Sean Moulton, Director of Federal Information Policy at OMB Watch, praised the EPA module, which was previewed by Andrew Battin, Director of the Office of Information Collection at the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA module will orchestrate increased coordination between federal agencies in order to make the FOIA process more efficient and transparent.