Everything you ever wanted to know about FOIA in 17 short videos

It’s movie night for open government advocates.

Sunshine Week is the Bonnaroo for freedom of government information activists and, to celebrate the festivities and launch of the new, the Justice Department has produced 17 videos to help explain everything you ever wanted to know about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

What is FOIA?

What is

What is on

Who can make a FOIA request?

How do I make a FOIA request?

Where do I send a FOIA request?

Who oversees FOIA?

How are FOIA requests categorized?

What will I receive in response to a FOIA request?

How much does it cost to make a FOIA request?

How long does it take to get an answer to a FOIA request?

How is a FOIA request processed?

Who handles FOIA requests?

What is a consultation?

What is a backlog?

What is an appeal?

What are exemptions?

Public Meetings 2.0

You’re busy and so is your local government. You have work, errands, family activities, chores … the list goes on. Your local government, on the other hand is constantly working on issues that affect you directly. It’s tough enough to stay informed of what your local government is doing, let alone making it to a public meeting.

Your local government allows you the opportunity to be informed and voice your opinion on issues that affect you, but how many people (including myself) actually attend those meetings and make it a priority to do so? Most people would rather not sit through an hour-long meeting waiting for that parking regulation discussion that is most important agenda item to them.

What if there was a way to stay up to date about decisions that are being made by your local government on issues that matter to you? What if you could also voice your opinion on those issues in a more informed way, at the same time, on your time, anytime, 24/7?

The answer is Internet video. According to a recent Nielsen report, there were “more than nine billion video streams viewed in the U.S. in March.”

If you had video on-demand for local government meetings, you could easily watch what really happened (the full discussion – not just a summary or someone’s interpretation of it in the minutes). Having complete and accurate information makes you better able to effectively participate in government, whether it’s writing an email or making a phone call about the issues that matter to you.

So, if there’s an easy solution, why aren’t more local governments providing this for the public?

There are several reasons, including that they consider video a disruption to the current flow that the meetings have. They’ve always done the meetings the same way. But video isn’t there to change the process. It’s there to record the process and make it more accessible to others.

Others might be overwhelmed and intimidated by the technology, thinking it’s too complicated and not applicable. They haven’t grown up with it and it seems like an unreasonable idea. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Video can be simple and useful.

Generally, officials may be thinking, “Why should we post videos of our meetings online?” The answer is simple:

Because that’s where most of your constituents are. It allows government to reach out to the people by being more accessible to them, helps citizens become more knowledgeable and involved with important issues and can help to gain their support. Online video also offers the ability to research a re-occurring agenda item and the possibility of less Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests because citizens can do the research on their own, saving the clerk time and the government money.

What’s stopping you from championing this for your government?

Flagship Initiatives Shine in Open Government Plans

Ever since Open Government Day – the 120 day deadline in the Open Government Directive when agencies had to release Open Government Plans – I’ve been pouring over them hoping to get a better understanding of how openness is going to be implemented. If we are to judge government openness by the barrage of documents we received last Wednesday, then we open government advocates ought to be very happy! But what are these documents made of, anyway? A word cloud illustrates it quite well – all the buzzwords that you would expect: Information, government, data, open, public.

(via Wordle)

However, most of the content within the Open Government Plans (at least the ones that I’ve had time to review) are largely aspirational. Each of them reviews the tenets of the OGD, and commit to transparency, collaboration, and participation, but lack the substance and details that will achieve each of these goals. Buzzwords dominate promises to “explore” or “experiment” towards reaching a goal. Agencies are working to plan openness, hoping to explore ideas with the public, and ready to become more transparent – but we’re not seeing the follow-through that we had hoped for in terms of actionable plans or lists of useful data sets the agency will be releasing to the public. Still, one part of each plan tended to be more fleshed out than the rest of the plan: the flagship initiative.

The OGD required agencies to describe at least one new initiative that they would begin implementing soon, and some agencies have already started their efforts towards these flagships. Because of the immediacy of the initiatives, they provide a glimpse of how each agency sees openness within their mission and how they plan to get there. Some are very substantial, providing the timelines and planning necessary to ensure that the project is ready to get underway – or in some cases, are already launched (link).

Flagship initiatives are probably the best indicator of how an agency is approaching the mandates of the Open Government Directive. They are intended to be the most concrete and specific part of the Plans – and typically, they are the only specific and developed plan for new steps towards openness. This is the road that will take agencies from idea to goal.

Some of the flagships are quite impressive, like the DOJ’s FOIA Dashboard, which will centralize and present data about FOIA, while others seem aspirational rather than ready to implement. For example, the Treasury Department hopes to become mostly paperless [link] but doesn’t provide an executable plan or indications of how they hope to achieve that goal. The four paragraphs on their open government flagship barely manage to explain the scope of the project.

Many flagship initiatives follow the general dashboard model: making data about government spending more accessible to the public using web tools and graphical presentation. OSTP (link) will be launching an R&D dashboard, and DOJ (link) has proposed centralizing FOIA data from 92 agencies as a dashboard. Centralizing this data into a dashboard allows easy comparisons between agencies and from year to year. Similarly, the Department of Energy (link) will be releasing energy information for the public in a wiki-style format, alongside educational initiatives.

Others propose opening processes that have not been open to the public, especially in technological ways. The NASA initiative (link) to collaborate with the public in developing their software, as part of an Open Source Software Development Program, will address a problem that’s widely addressed in the geek-oriented side of the open government community – it’s inordinately difficult to try to help out in technology oriented ways. Similarly, OSTP will be starting a “Geeks for Wonks” program to connect technology students and agencies with projects. Creating these avenues for skilled engagement – rather than simply asking for ideas – has the potential to engage those hoping to help who have thus far been shut out.

The most notable success? Agencies are starting to build career champions for transparency and for the use of technology within agencies. Technology can enable the transparency, participation, and collaboration that will make government more effective.

Each of these initiatives has the potential to change the way that agencies do business. That is the intention of the OGD – to change the way that the government interacts with citizens, how agencies collaborate internally, and how much information is available to the public. Clearly, this culture change has been embraced in many agencies, but not everyone has had the time to develop substantive plans. The most promising ones are well developed and are going to make information available, streamline performance, or engage citizens. I have every hope that even the most ambitious of flagships can become a reality, as agencies move forward with their Open Government Plans. I hope that next time around, the plans will have more substance – more concrete, achievable initiatives to go with the grand plans full of buzzwords.