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The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is popularly understood to be the representation of “the people’s right to know” (Ginsberg 1) the various activities of the government. The Act was passed in 1966 after a series of investigations and legislation that took nearly 11 years. Under the Act, individuals have a right to access and use records without being questioned. No one is thus expected to explain why they need to access information. Generally, FOIA requires all federal agencies to permit the public to access any information under their custody in order to make it possible for civilians to gain an understanding of the decisions and activities of the government. The Act also creates a channel through which disputes regarding access to information records can easily be resolved.
In the United States, the Act is presently a very important tool of inquiry as well as information gathering. Different people or groups are thus able to access information for various purposes. They include the press, the business community, activists, scholars, consumers, and attorneys (Ginsberg 1). Apparently, this privilege has also been extended to interested foreign parties. Ordinarily, responses to requests may be presented in paper or digital form. The assembly of responses usually consumes so much time and is thus handled by a special group of information management experts. In some cases, experts may explore the possibility of narrowing the scope of the requested information. In the event that some information cannot be given out to the requesters, it is the responsibility of information management professionals to a satisfactory explanation. With the passing of the OPEN Government Act in 2007, modifications were made to FOIA to encourage public participation in the improvement of the Act.
The Freedom of Information Act Process
To a large extent, the process of handling Freedom of Information Act requests tends to vary from one federal agency to another (Koontz 8). This notwithstanding, there are underlying similarities in the way things are done. As a starting point, information requesters are expected to submit their requests in writing to federal agencies. Requests may also be received via telephone or electronic means. Generally, requests for information may be initiated either by organizations or ordinary members of the public.
After being received, information requests are expected to go through a number of distinct phases. Typically, the processing cycle is initiated by the requester of information. Next, the agencies locate and retrieve the requested information from their database records. After retrieval, the requested information is then prepared in readiness for release to the requester. However, before the information is released to the requester, the released records must be approved by relevant authorities. The records requested are then delivered to the individual or organization requesting.
A number of things happen during the different phases. At the initial processing phase, for example, “a request is logged into the agency’s FOIA system, and a case file is started” (Koontz 8). Ostensibly, this activity is very critical for starting the FOIA process. The federal agency then takes time to review the request and establish both scope and cost requirements. The agency then relays an initial response to the person or organization making the request. After getting a nod from the requester, the federal agency staff proceeds with the search to locate and retrieve the requested records from their database. For effectiveness, the search may be expected to span multiple locations or offices.
Freedom of Information Act Exemptions
Legal exemptions from FOIA are “often referred to as non-disclosure statutes” (Stevens 5). The exemptions came about as a result of efforts made by corporations and federal agencies. However, the private sector is concerned that FOIA’s exemptions do not meet the expectations of different organizations and individuals. Academicians and some members of the public are opposed to FOIA’s exemptions based on their allegation that such exemptions will weaken the intention of the government to be transparent and accountable to the public.
Apparently, exemptions have “the potential to severely hinder the public’s ability to access critical information related to oversight activities” of the government agencies (Stevens 6). Individuals who are in support of transparency and accountability contend that new exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act present a serious threat to the ability of the public to gain access to critical information about government operations and the industry. Proponents of open records further claim that exemptions generally cause the intent of the government to appear suspicious.
Arguably, the Freedom of Information Act exempts various classifications of records, as explained here. One of the exemptions has to do with information that touches on security and national defense. Apparently, this classification is designed to ensure that sensitive information does not end up in the wrong hands and puts the security of the nation at risk. The exemption also ensures that all foreign policy secrets are guarded jealously. The second category is that of information that directly relates to the internal operations of a federal information management agency. A third classification includes information that is exempted from any form of disclosure by legislation. Other categories include trade secrets and financial information about privileged individuals, records collected for the purpose of law enforcement, and vital information about the operations of financial institutions.
Using the Freedom of Information Act
Drawing from a study by CGR (6), the Freedom of Information Act is applicable to the documents that are held by various agencies of the executive arm of the Federal Government which consist of the military, cabinet, government corporations, regulatory agencies run by private individuals or organizations, and corporations that are controlled by the government. Ostensibly, officials elected by the public are not subject to FOIA regulations. In addition, the judiciary and some designated private companies are also free from FOIA’s rules and regulations.
All agencies are expected, under the Freedom of Information Act, to publish information that describes the agency organization and its addresses. They are also required to publish information regarding their operations as well as rules and procedures that govern those operations. All the records of a particular federal agency may be requested under the Freedom of Information Act, and “the form in which a record is maintained by an agency does not affect its availability” (CGR 7). A requester is thus permitted to ask for records in printed, electronic, tape, or any other form as desired.
However, it is important to note that not all records requested under FOIA must be made available to the requester. The disclosure of the requested records may be subject to exemptions and hence not accessible to the requester. In order to obtain the requested records, it is imperative to ensure that the request provides a clear description of the records requested. Every request must be submitted with specific details so as to simplify the search process.
Amendments to the Freedom of Information Act
At the time of enactment, it was hoped that FOIA would bring about a revolutionary change in the United States. Arguably, FOIA offered very clear directives on how to access specific information and ensure that it is not disclosed to unauthorized parties. Evidently, every single administration in the United States made use of the Freedom of Information Act differently. During his reign, for example, President Barrack Obama has endeavored to encourage federal agencies to embrace the idea of disclosure and open access.
Over the years, a number of bills been introduced in Congress to amend the Freedom of Information Act. The Reducing Information Control Designations Act, for example, was introduced in order to compel federal agencies to organize their systems in a way that permits easy access. Another amendment was introduced on May 15, 2009, requiring all government rehabilitation centers to be subjected to FOIA regulations.
The OPEN FOIA Act introduced in 2009 required all federal agencies to state the reason for any exemption claimed. Apparently, this was the first key reform to the Freedom of Information Act after a very time. It is presumed that “the OPEN Government Act will help to reverse the troubling trends of excessive delays and lax FOIA compliance in government operations” (GPO 36061). The OPEN Government Act was also meant to restore the government image and gain public confidence. It is also presumed that the OPEN Government Act will help to ensure the FOIA process is transparent enough.
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Committee on Government Reform (CGR). A Citizen’s Guide on Using the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act of 1974 to Request Government Records: First Report. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2004. Print.
Ginsberg, Wendy. Freedom of Information Act: Issues for the 111th Congress. Collingdale, PA: DIANE Publishing, 2010. Print.
Government Printing Office (GPO). Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 110th Congress. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2011. Print.
Koontz, Linda. Freedom of Information Act: Agencies are making Progress in Reducing Backlog, but Additional Guidance Is Needed. Collingdale, PA: DIANE Publishing, 2008. Print.
Stevens, Gina. Freedom of Information Act and Nondisclosure Provisions in Other Federal Laws. Collingdale, PA: DIANE Publishing, 2010. Print.