Pilot program will publicize all FOIA responses at select federal agencies

OIP Director Melanie Ann Pustay
Melanie Ann Pustay, director of the Justice Department office leading the new pilot program, speaks at a celebration of Sunshine Week. (Photo credit: Department of Justice)

Last week, the Obama administration quietly announced it is trying a new policy that will increase public disclosure of government information requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). During a six-month pilot period, seven executive departments and agencies will start publishing all responses to FOIA requests — a promising shift from present practice.

Currently, federal agencies are only required to publicly share released records that are requested three or more times. The new policy, known as “release to one, release to all,” removes this threshold for some agencies and instead requires that any records released to even one requester also be posted publicly online. If successful, the pilot could be implemented more broadly across the executive branch and increase public access to important information about government activity.

“We think [the pilot] has tremendous potential to increase transparency and give the public information,” said Melanie Pustay, director of the Justice Department office that issues FOIA guidance and is leading the pilot, in an interview with The Huffington Post.

The primary goal of the pilot period is to determine whether requiring disclosure of all FOIA responses substantially increases the cost or amount of staff time required to respond to requests for information, according to the administration’s announcement. Additionally, the administration says it will consider potential privacy concerns — participating agencies will not publish responses to individuals only requesting information about themselves, for example.

The results of the pilot will be made public and participating agencies plan to be transparent throughout their implementation of the program. Members of the public are also invited to submit feedback, ideas, comments or suggestions to the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy.

The pilot will be conducted at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Selected components of the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, and National Archives and Records Administration will also participate. The group of agencies participating in the pilot may seem disjointed, but according to Pustay, this will allow agencies to test the new policy with a wide variety of record types and information requests.

The Sunlight Foundation has supported legislation currently being considered in both the House and the Senate that would modernize and improve the FOIA in other important ways, but neither proposal would require public disclosure of responses after just one request instead of three. Accordingly, this new policy could actually improve FOIA practices beyond what is currently being considered by Congress, if the pilot is successful.

On his first day in office, President Obama sent a memo to the heads of executive departments and agencies instructing that “all agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure … applied to all decisions involving FOIA.” The “release to one, release to all” pilot program shows that the administration is still serious about improving public access to government information by ensuring that federal agencies are always biased towards disclosure and openness as they respond to FOIA requests.