Today in OpenGov: President Obama signs FOIA reform into law


WIN: In a victory for open government, President Barack Obama signed the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 into law yesterday in the Oval Office, surrounded by the media. Video is available on C-SPAN. He made a short statement before he signed the bill:

Well, even in the midst of political season, every once in a while, Congress moves forward on something that is really significant and important. And I want to make sure that the American public are aware of what I’m going to be signing here today.

The first piece of legislation relates to the Freedom of Information Act. As all of you know, the Freedom of Information Act is one of the key ways in which citizens are able to find out what exactly is going on in government. And the good news is, is that over the course of my presidency, we have processed more FOIA requests — Freedom of Information requests — than ever before. And we have worked to make it easier and more transparent, putting more and more stuff online.

But having said all that, we’re actually getting many more requests for FOIA than ever before.  And so we’ve had to figure out ways that we can reform this to make it easier, faster, cheaper for people to get the information that they want.

Fortunately, Congress — on a bipartisan basis — has provided the tools — legislation — to codify some of the reforms we’ve already made and to expand more of these reforms so that government is more responsive. And I am very proud of all the work we’ve done to try to make government more open and responsive, but I know that people haven’t always been satisfied with the speed with which they’re getting responses and requests. Hopefully this is going to help and be an important initiative for us to continue on the reform path.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN? This much-needed update to the Freedom of Information Act won’t fix all that ails access to information in the United States, but the makeover will help. [The Atlantic]

The reforms will make it easier for the public to request and receive information from the federal government, which has been a genuine problem for many years. [Vice] [Politico]

If you’re a government scientist or work with an agency on scientific research, this reform will be of interest to you. Make sure to read more about it in Science Magazine. [Science]

Government transparency advocates and journalists should celebrate this achievement. After the toasts are over, though, there is still so much that needs to be done. [Common Cause]

LET IT GO: The monthslong delay in releasing guidance and rescheduling public consultations around agency open government plans is troubling, and signals a lack of commitment and prioritization to transparency in the “final quarter” of this administration. The White House must release guidance to agencies on open government plans as soon as possible — and make sure that the Office of Management and Budget updates its own after four years.

STAY TUNED: We’ll have much more to say next week about the “new steps towards transparency and openness” that the White House announced in conjunction with the President signing the bill. In the meantime, have a wonderful Independence Day weekend!


  • The Intercept has published leaked documents containing the FBI’s rules for sending National Security Letters to journalists and their sources. The use of these letters has been secret and does not appear to have any court oversight. [Freedom of the Press Foundation]
  • Richard Pollock reported that “Department of Justice officials filed a motion in federal court late Wednesday seeking a 27-month delay in producing correspondence between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s four top aides and officials with the Clinton Foundation and Teneo Holdings, a closely allied public relations firm that Bill Clinton helped launch.” Key insight: “Only 71 ‘part-time’ retired foreign service officers are being used to review all of the pending FOIA requests.” [Daily Caller]
  • The federal government released casualty statistics on civilian deaths outside of war zones. Good news, but the transparency is late and falls short of independent estimates of casualties, most of which have come from the use of drones. [New York Times]
  • Amidst a national furor over a 30-minute meeting between her and former President Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac in Arizona, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said on Friday that “she would accept whatever recommendations that career prosecutors and the F.B.I. director make about whether to bring charges” regarding former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time at the State Department. [New York Times]
  • Here’s an interesting look at how “touchscreen democracy” can impact politics. [CS Monitor]
  • If you haven’t read enough FOIA news and analysis yet, make sure to check out Columbia Journalism Review’s interactive timeline of 50 years of FOIA. [CJR]

State and Local

  • Why are some cities so good at releasing data? Plus: You don’t have to be a big city to release big data — Asheville and Hartford can show you how.
  • Great read for the weekend: How civic interests are helping to shape government innovation. [GovTech]
  • Boston has been getting better at releasing data and has been a national leader in embracing civic technology, but its mayor says that transparency can sometimes make it hard to do his job. [Boston Globe]
  • Bad news: North Carolina is sending a bill to the governor that does not classify video recorded by law enforcement as government records. It’s a ludicrous determination to put into state law. [StateScoop]
  • Good news: Ohio’s new public records act was signed into law. [WOSU]
  • Analysis to apply: Is government IT built to fail? [GovTech]


  • Make sure to read this interesting perspective from Turkey on how civic data initiatives might differ from big or open data. While that may be a semantic issue, that focus on applying data for accountability and actionable change is not. [Medium]
  • The major parties are speaking in Australia’s election, but is the coalition listening? []
  • Here’s some reflections by a journalist on the Open Government Partnership in Africa. [Talk Africa]

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