Executive Order on FOIA Is a First Step

For Immediate Release
Contact: Matt Landin
(202) 367-1625

WASHINGTON (Dec. 15, 2005) — The Sunshine in Government Initiative applauded the goals of the Executive Order signed yesterday by President Bush calling for improvements in response to information requests by federal agencies.

“We commend the Administration’s goals for making information access more efficient and easier for citizens to navigate. It is a good first step,” said coalition spokesman Paul Boyle, senior vice president of the Newspaper Association of America.

The Sunshine in Government Initiative is a media coalition formed to promote more open government in Washington. The group is spearheading an effort in this Congress to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act through implementation of administration policy and FOIA legislation that increase government accessibility, accountability, and openness.

The group’s members include the American Society of Newspaper Editors, The Associated Press, Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, National Newspaper Association, Newspaper Association of America, Radio-Television News Directors Association, Society of Professional Journalists, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.

The Executive Order announced yesterday is intended to address some of the problems facing the Freedom of Information Act, including delays in responses and a lack of general accountability within federal agencies for compliance.

The Order calls for designation of a Chief FOIA Officer in each federal department to be responsible for streamlining response to FOIA requests. Each agency must submit an action plan for such streamlining to the Justice Department in six months. The plans will be posted on the Internet.

Once approved, the plans are to be put into effect over the next two years. Each agency will also be required to establish a FOIA Requester Service Center and designate Public Liaisons to help information seekers.

But the Executive Order does not address a number of the issues covered in comprehensive FOIA reform legislation now before Congress.

Titled the Open Government Act of 2005, a bill introduced this year in the Senate by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and in the House by Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) seeks to close loopholes in FOIA compliance, reduce response times and provide federal agencies with the tools and incentives needed to comply with the statute.

Congress held hearings during 2005 on the legislation, and the Sunshine in Government Initiative participated in those hearings.

Wednesday’s Order does not provide an administration entity with the authority to enforce FOIA deadlines across agencies, does not ensure cross-agency coordination of disclosure policy and contains no penalties for agencies that fail to meet the deadlines.

“While the stated goals of the Executive Order are encouraging, Congressional oversight is needed now more than ever to assess whether the Chief FOIA officer will have the clout within the agency to get the job done, and whether the Public Liaison will be sufficiently independent to be effective,” said Boyle. “Congress needs to enact additional policy changes to make the FOIA process more efficient and easily accessible for its citizens.”

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