Witnesses: Open records law still difficult to use

Witnesses: Open records law still difficult to use

Posted: Wednesday, March 16, 2011 8:02 pm
By: AP

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Freedom of Information Act remains an unwieldy and inefficient tool for obtaining government records despite President Obama’s promise to reinvigorate the law and improve his administration’s transparency, experts told the Senate on Tuesday.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, said it has made significant progress since January 2009, when the president directed federal agencies to disclose more information rapidly and reduce their backlogs of requests for records by citizens, journalists, companies and others.
John Podesta, president of the progressive Center for American Progress, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that federal agencies have not carried out Obama’s order aggressively enough. Podesta, a former White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, also said there is evidence some agencies have reduced their backlogs of information requests through administrative maneuvering instead of providing the requested information.
“The administration has the right policy,” Podesta said. “The problem is in the implementation.”
Podesta’s criticisms are significant because of his close ties to the White House. He guided Obama through the presidential transition process after the 2008 election. He has long been an advocate for government openness. He told the committee that most government information should be automatically disclosed on the Internet.
Sarah Cohen, a Duke University journalism professor testifying on behalf of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, said the law is difficult to navigate and useful only to the most patient and persistent journalists. Cohen credited Obama’s transparency goals but warned the reforms are tenuous. “Administrations change, and these actions can be reversed as quickly as they began,” she said.
Melanie Pustay, director of the Justice Department’s office of information policy, defended the administration’s record. Agencies are doing a better job of following the open records law by applying the presumption of openness, making the FOIA process more efficient, and posting more information online to reduce the number of requests, Pustay told the committee.
“I think we’re the most transparent that we’ve ever been,” said Pustay, whose office has responsibility for ensuring government-wide compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.

Published in The Messenger 3.16.11

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