5 Things To Know About Government Transparency

Happy Sunshine Week! Since 2005, government accountability and watchdog groups take one week in March to “promote a dialogue about the importance of open governments and freedom of information.” Participants use this week to raise awareness about federal activities and promote accountability for lawmakers and agencies in Washington. Here are five things to know about Sunshine Week and government transparency under the current administration.

1.What Are Some Of The Transparency Issues This Year? Many organizations and journalists have been critical of the current administration’s promise that it is “the most transparent administration in history.” Shortly after his inauguration, President Obama sent a memo to federal agencies, promising, “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.” Government watchdog organizations often use Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA requests, in order to find out more information about government activities.

2. What Is A FOIA Request? According to the administration’s website, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) “provides a right of access to the public of government records.” Organizations and businesses like those involved in Sunshine Week use these requests to find out more information about government actions and procedures that they believe should be available to themselves or to the public.

3. How Many FOIA Requests Were Made Last Year? FOIA requests by journalists and individuals increased 8 percent last year, reaching 704,394 requests. According to an Associated Press (AP) analysis, the government only responded to 678,391 of those requests, and that 36 percent of those responses included censored materials or denied access to the requested information.

4. What Information Is Not Included In A FOIA Request?  As we mentioned above, official responses to FOIA requests can often include information that is classified, and an agency can censor parts of the document. In 2013, “national security” was cited as the reason for withholding information on nearly 8,500 requests. Cause of Action, a nonprofit, nonpartisan government watchdog group that is a participant in Sunshine Week, rounded up the best examples of FOIA censorship on Twitter. They include pages that only include titles of documents, censored subject lines, and even a censored illustrated figure.

5. Why Is It Difficult To Access Government Information? However, these requests are not often responded to in a timely way or with any urgency. Cause of Action, a nonprofit, nonpartisan government transparency group, created this infographic with one example of how a FOIA request for federal documents can take months to fulfill.

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