Freedom of Information Day at the Newseum

How quickly do freedom of information officers handle public requests? What can requesters of federal and local information do to facilitate requests? How can the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) be improved? What are the top policy priorities the new administration will face in 2017?

Answers to those questions and more were provided by legal experts and open government advocates at the 18th National Freedom of Information Day conference held March 11 at the Newseum’s Knight Conference Center. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Freedom of Information Act. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the law on July 4, 1966, and it went into effect in 1967.

In a discussion on the FOIA from the government’s perspective, panelists Meredith Fuchs, Sheryl Walter, Traci Hughes and Miriam Nisbet outlined the issues facing FOIA officers. The issues ranged from requests that are too broad; FOIA officers who fear making their names public on some requests; and FOIA officers caught in the middle of government bureaucracy. Tom Susman, director of government affairs at the American Bar Association, moderated the discussion.

Hughes, a former reporter who is now director of the D.C. Office of Open Government, suggested that FOIA officers be provided “a level of protection so they can do their jobs.”

Nisbet, founding director of the Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives, explained that there were different expectations from people requesting information and those providing it.

“The walls are really tall and really thick,” she said.

Nisbet was one of eight people inducted in the 2016 class of the National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame. New members are inducted every five years and were recognized at the conference.

Solutions to speeding FOIA requests included opening the lines of communication between FOIA officers and requesters, and clearly identifying categories of information that should be released.

“Someone should ask the incoming administration how they feel about transparency,” said Fuchs, former deputy director and general counsel at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The panelists were split on whether aggressive or friendly approaches, called “honey and vinegar” by Susman, were effective in getting requests filled quickly.

“A friendly approach does get cooperation,” said Walter, former director of the Office of Information Programs and Services at the State Department, but she explained that priorities often shift if an agency thinks it will be sued.

The conference also included a caucus on the top policy priorities in 2017, featuring transparencies in policing; money in politics; national security transparency and whistle-blower protection.

The Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, OpenTheGovernment.org, the American Society of News Editors, Sunshine Week, and the American Library Association sponsored the daylong event.

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