The good thing about the federal Freedom of Information Act is that it declares the kind of clarity about government operations that citizens require if they’re going to make a constitutional democracy work.
The worst thing about the federal Freedom of Information Act is that it’s administered by government personnel, who, no matter their personal character, are components in the system whose activities are subject to disclosure, inspection and accountability.
In other words, it’s not just a quirk that people who submit Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests for public documents often wait for years without satisfaction.
No wonder the Sunlight Foundation, a national organization that advocates for open government, last week saluted Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who has introduced a welcome new political app, known as the Public Online Information Act. A companion bill has been introduced in the House by Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y.
The measure provides simply that within three years of enactment, executive branch agencies of the federal government would have to put their publicly available information online. As quickly as possible, and in user-friendly formats.
The measure also brings the three branches of government together to work out common guidelines for information sharing and it gives individual citizens the ability to go online to request specific information.
“Sen. Tester has put down an important transparency marker: In today’s world, for information to be truly public, it must be made available online,” said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation.
Assuming the proposal becomes law, it will be critical that information requests and retrieval be as isolated from partisan intervention as possible and that search functions be intuitive enough that citizens can use them without being versed in bureaucratic jargon.
The Freedom of Information Act held great promise once. It’s failed to realize its potential because of political game playing. The Public Online Information Act must be protected from that fate.