New Federal Policy Makes FOIA Responses Available to All

July 10, 2015

Federal agencies are starting to use the Freedom of Information Act to increase access to public records by putting each response to a FOIA request online. Currently, the E-FOIA amendments of 1996 require agencies to put records online which have been the subject of repeated (read: three) requests. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press notes:

With little public fanfare, seven federal agencies have announced a controversial trial program of publishing documents responsive to most Freedom of Information Act requests online. Under the program, known as a “Release-to-One is Release-to-All” policy, any member of the public will presumably have access to the result of almost any FOIA request.

Few other details were released in a brief announcement posted on several agency websites. It remains to be seen whether there will be a delay between sending responsive documents to the requester and posting them for the general public, or whether requesters will simply be sent a link to a public website that already hosts the documents.

Agencies participating in the six-month pilot include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and certain components of the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the National Archives and Records Administration.

This is a great move for two reasons. First, it improves access to public records. Second, it saves FOIA officers the time of responding to the same request over and over; this, in turn, improves response times for other FOIA requests. Alex Howard interviewed Melanie Pustay, the director of the Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice about the new policy.

In the past, Reinvent Albany has advocated for a similar response to FOIL requests. We call it “One Strike and You’re In” – if an agency receives a request for a single record from a data set, the entire data set should be published in a bulk-downloadable, machine-readable format. The Sunlight Foundation included this recommendation in its open data best practices.

Strictly speaking, “Release-to-One is Release-to-All” won’t put data sets online, just the individual pieces that get FOIAed. However, this is still a vast improvement over the current state of affairs, and should be adopted across New York agencies.