18F, the federal government’s new IT development shop, has launched a new look at the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the form of a open source application hosted on Github. Today’s announcement is the most substantive evidence yet that the Obama administration will indeed modernize the Freedom of Information Act, as the United States committed to doing in its second National Action Plan on Open Government. Given how poor some of the “FOIA portals” and underlying software that supports them exists is at all level of government, this is tremendous news for anyone that cares about the use of technology to support open government.
Notably, 18F already has a prototype (pictured above) online that shows what a consolidated request submission hub could look like and plans to iterate upon it. This is a perfect example of “lean government,” or the application of lean startup principles and agile development to the creation of citizen-centric services in the public sector. Demonstrating its commitment to developing free and open source software in the open, 18F asked the public to follow the process online at their FOIA software repository on Github, send them feedback or even contribute to the project.
18F has now committed to creating software that improvse how requests made under the Freedom of Information Act can be improved through technology. Specifically that it will develop tools that “improve the FOIA request submission experience,” “create a scalable infrastructure for making requests to federal agencies” and “make it easier for requesters to find records and other information that have already been made available online.”
According to 18F’s blog post, this work is supported and overseen by a “FOIA Task Force,” consisting of representatives from the Department of Justice, Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The task force will need to focus upon more than technology: while poor software has hindered requests and publishing, that’s not the primary issue that’s hindering the speed or quality of responses.
Despite the U.S. attorney general’s laudable commitment to a new era of open government in 2009, the Obama administration received a .91 GPA in FOIA compliance earlier this year from the Center for Effective Government.
While White House press secretary Josh Earnest may be well correct in stating that the federal government is processing more FOIA requests than ever, As the National Security Archive noted in March, the use of a FOIA exemption (protecting “deliberative processes”) to deny or heavily redact requests has skyrocketed in the past two years.
As with the reduced access to government staff and scientists that a group of 38 journalism and open government advocates decried earlier this year, improving FOIA compliance cannot solely be addressed through technological means. To address endemic government secrecy and outright abuse of exemptions to protect against politically inconvenient disclosures, Obama administration — in particular, the U.S. Justice Department — will need to expend political capital and push agencies to actually shift the cultural default towards openness and release uncomfortable or embarrassing data and documents and not redact them beyond understanding.
That’s admittedly a huge challenge, particularly for an administration facing multiple foreign and domestic conundrums, including a scandal over missing IRS emails and obfuscated records in an election year and the most politically polarized Congress and electorate in the nation’s history, but if President Barack Obama is truly committed to “creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” it’s one that he and his administration will need to take on.