FOIA should be proactive, not reactive

I’ve noticed a few interesting improvements at various local governments across the country that are taking a more proactive approach to Freedom of Information Act requests — and I’m impressed.

Gainesville, Fla., recently opened its commissioners’ (as well as the mayor’s) emails through an online database. No need for a FOIA request, just click and search away. Ann Arbor, Mich.,— along with Greensboro, N.C. — now publishes its FOIA request log online (something every city should do). A new plan in Albuquerque, N.M., could give wider access to the state’s court records like PACER does at the federal level. Riverside, Calif., logged almost 16,000 views in one week on a new database it launched containing “information on city finances, police and fire calls, and access to thousands of other records.”

While these are to highlight just a few of the good examples, I think (and hope) that we will start to see a trend where local governments realize that relying on technology to assist them in handling public records requests will ultimately cut down on their cost, increase transparency and make for more satisfied citizens. Anything that public officials can do to utilize tools already in existence for open government purposes should be mandatory. Legislators create laws, in most cases, for our own good. We ought to insist the same logic be applied to state agencies and officials by forcing efficiency on them.

Freedom of information laws should first operate on the principle that all information should be readily available to the public at low or no cost, and then work backward (i.e. exemptions for security reasons, etc.).

On the federal level, a bipartisan bill known as the Freedom of Information Improvement Act was recently introduce in the Senate and would, among other things, restrict the use of FOIA’s “deliberative process” exemption — an overused and, in some cases, purposely misapplied exemption. Additionally, Andrew Becker, a reporter with the Center for Investigative Reporting, will serve on the federal FOIA Modernization Advisory Committee.

Local governments should be working with local news outlets and journalists in the same way. We have plenty of ideas on how they can improve their open records processes from low-cost fixes, to minor tech training for open records officers, to other solutions that would just require the use of free third-party tools (not being able to receive records via email should is ridiculous). Government agencies should not be waiting on complaints or lawsuits before deciding that their FOIA processes need updating.

Many of the basic documents that journalists often request — FOIA logs, emails, official memos or documentation — should be readily available and searchable online. There’s no good reason to keep the antiquated status quo.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

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