Despite having 45 years to get "warmed up," the era of "open government" may take several more cycles before it becomes a reality. President Obama promised an unprecedented level of openness, but to date, the level of openness remains pretty much unchanged from his predecessors'.
An analysis of open-government requests filed by Bloomberg News
shows that most cabinet-level agencies would rather break the law than comply with the requirements of the Freedom of Information act. And by "most," Bloomberg means "nearly all."
Nineteen of 20 cabinet-level agencies disobeyed the law requiring the disclosure of public information: The cost of travel by top officials. In all, just eight of the 57 federal agencies met Bloomberg’s request for those documents within the 20-day window required by the Act.
The Bloomberg analysis also tracked the timeliness of information requests, pointing out that fast turn-time was referred to as "an essential component of transparency" by Attorney General Eric Holder. Bloomberg was seeking disclosure on out-of-town travel expenses generated by top officials.
About half of the 57 agencies eventually disclosed the out-of-town travel expenses generated by their top official by Sept. 14, most of them well past the legal deadline.
The travel costs generated by some other Obama officials --Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, and Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano -- also remain undisclosed.
A request made in June for the travel records of Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, will remain unfulfilled for more than a year, according to a federal official involved in the case.
“We really appreciate your patience in this matter. The estimated completion date is July 2013,” wrote Chris Barnes, a State Department FOIA official, in a Sept. 24 e-mail. Under FOIA, the department is required to offer a timetable for delayed responses.
Travel expense reports aren't exactly the most arcane records. Every business has them and while the government may have more to track, it's hard to believe that requesting this data on only
the top official in each department should take longer than the 20-day period. In fact, it's hard to believe that this data needs to be requested at all.
Eric Newton, senior adviser at the Knight Foundation, a Miami-based group that promotes citizen engagement, said agencies have no excuse not to rapidly disclose travel costs.
“In a 24/7 world, it should take two days, it should take two hours,” Newton said. “If it’s public, it should be just there.”
It looks as if FOIA requests, no matter what their reason, are either being stalled or given a very low priority in certain departments. Whatever can't be held off indefinitely is being avoided completely through abuse of exemptions. The Obama administration flexed its exemption muscle during its first year, deploying 50% more than the Bush administration. Since then, the numbers have died down a bit, but there's no reason to start celebrating a "new era of openness." This simply means a drop from a high of 466,402 down to 369,417 exemptions in 2011.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, a majority of these exemptions (231,634) were deployed by the Department of Homeland Security
. (The next two are the Dept. of Defense [30,861] and the Dept. of Justice [23,916].) With the handy ability to cite the interests of "national security" at the drop of a hat, the DHS can turn down nearly any request. This hasn't stopped the public from trying, however. The DHS still receives the most requests but it's hard to believe it's receiving 10 times
the number of requests the Dept. of Justice is, making its exemption percentage that much more egregious.
Even with exemption deployment being the default setting for a few agencies, there are currently no exemptions that apply to the requested travel information from disclosure. A slight delay could be expected for redaction efforts, but as Bloomberg points out, other agencies redacted personal data and still
managed to respond in a timely fashion.
Responsive agencies were able to redact personal details within the FOIA time period. The Federal Housing Finance Agency, the chief regulator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, provided the travel expense records for Acting Director Edward DeMarco’s six trips out of town within 15 days of the filing.
DeMarco’s trips cost $5,653.29, the documents show. Personal information such as his Social Security number and home address were blacked-out in the file.
Some of these delays can also be chalked up to good old fashioned bureaucracy, something which nevers seems to go out of style in DC. The administration is working on a streamlining plan for the FOIA process, but it's being rolled out at a very bureaucratic pace.
The administration acknowledged systemic issues with the FOIA process when the Office of Management and Budget issued guidelines Aug. 24 to all federal agencies on how to streamline government information. The memo called for all government information to be stored in an electronic format by December 2019 -- almost three years after the end of a potential second Obama term.
A glacial pace only a bureaucrat could love combined with what Bloomberg refers to as a "culture of obfuscation" means that requesting something as simple as travel records becomes an exercise in near futility. The Freedom of Information Act has been around since 1966 which means that a.) this isn't just this
administration's problem and b.) the government has had more than four decades to make the process run more smoothly. One can only conclude that the government has very little interest in transparency, no matter what promises were made during the "honeymoon" period.
Fortunately, many more entities like the ACLU
and the EFF
are working to make the government comply with its own law
. The process is arduous and far from satisfying, but without a continual push, the government will continue to allow the public to pay for the "privilege" of being told it's "none of their business." Oh, and it should be noted that after I finished this, Mike informed me that he's been waiting for months for the response to a FOIA he filed which, by law, should have been completed back in July. The reason given by the agency in question for the delay: give us more time, because we only have two people working on all FOIA requests.