The Trump administration recently announced its plan to accelerate the processing of a 13,000 records-request backlog that has piled up over the past decade at the U.S. State Department. This is a good start, but the president has an even greater opportunity to show his administration’s commitment to transparency: finalizing the “Release to One, Release to all” rule for the Freedom of Information Act.
The Freedom of Information Act, or “FOIA,” signed into law a half century ago, permits Americans to petition any federal agency for records. The purpose of the FOIA was to help hold those agencies accountable by allowing the public to know what their government was up to. The Release to One, Release to All policy, initially proposed under the Obama administration, would expand access to information by making records produced in response to individual FOIA requests publicly available to everyone through agency websites.
Progress on the policy was initially swift. The Department of Justice Office of Information Policy initiated a pilot program and solicited public comments on the proposed rule, which garnered support from interested groups and non-profits across the political spectrum. The goal was to prepare for government-wide implementation of the policy by Jan. 1, 2017. Unfortunately, eleven months after the deadline passed, the rulemaking process has ground to a halt, and the government refuses to explain the standstill.
Last year alone, agencies processed more than 750,000 FOIA requests. If the records produced in response were all made public, journalists could more easily and expeditiously report on information in the public interest, while think tanks and similar organizations could use the data to provide more robust analysis and oversight of agency actions. Free and open access to this information would allow for more accountability and make it easier for groups to inform the public about what their government is up to and to advocate for improving agency operations.
Release to one, Release to All also could help improve the FOIA process at agencies. Publicly releasing records would eliminate the need to process redundant FOIA requests and increase efficiency by allowing requesters to more finely target their requests.
Recently, my organization, Cause of Action Institute, joined with 21 other transparency and oversight groups to urge the Trump administration to finalize the Release to one, Release to all rule. In addition, Cause of Action Institute and the Sunlight Foundation took it a step further and filed a petition under the Administrative Procedure Act asking the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Justice Office of Information Policy to move forward with the rule. These agencies have a statutory obligation to respond to our petition, but if no response is forthcoming, we can file suit to demand one.
Since the beginning of the Trump administration, Cause of Action Institute has filed more than 50 FOIA requests with federal agencies. The FOIA is a powerful tool, but far from perfect. In fact, out of the 50 requests we filed this year, only one produced a satisfactory response within the statutorily required timeframe. As a result, we have been forced to file a number of lawsuits to compel agencies to act. Most citizens do not have the time, ability, or money to force agency compliance in this way. Implementation of the Release to One, Release to All policy will help mitigate that problem.
In response to existing FOIA requests, agencies process responsive records and lawfully redact sensitive information, such as personal information or national security secrets, before producing those records to the requestor. With all the work that goes into FOIA productions, the Release to One, Release to All rule would leverage those investments and expand the benefits to the widest possible segment of the public.
Federal agencies should strive to work together with the transparency community. We are disappointed by the lack of progress and lack of answers surrounding implementation of this rule to date. The Trump administration can seize the moment and finalize Release to One, Release to All to ensure that the American people have greater access to government records.
Tyler Arnold is communications associate at Cause of Action Institute.