The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Editorials

March 24, 2014

Information requests need attention

Why it matters: Stopping information from seeing sunlight hampers the democratic process.

Transparency is more than giving lip service to the idea of open government. Record requests actually have to be attended to in an efficient, fair manner.

According to a recent analysis of Freedom of Information Act requests by The Associated Press, that’s just not happening at the federal government level, despite the Obama administration’s pledge to be the most open government in history.

AP says that five years after Obama directed agencies to less frequently invoke a “deliberative process” exception to withhold materials describing decision-making behind the scenes, the government did it anyway — a record 81,752 times.

Under the act, anyone who seeks information through the law is generally supposed to get it unless disclosure would hurt national security, violate personal privacy or expose business secrets or confidential decision-making in certain areas.

The AP report points out repeatedly that those requests are often met with resistance or take much too long to be processed. Last year, the government denied 6,689 out of 7,818 requests for so-called expedited processing, which moves an urgent request for newsworthy records to the front of the line for a speedy answer, or about 86 percent. It denied only 53 percent of such requests in 2008.

Journalists aren’t the only people who should be whining about records being withheld. What the media can’t get, the public can’t get either.

As a result, you might not find out that the defense industry buys $5,000 toilets or that your congressman took an unusual number of working trips to Hawaii during a brutally harsh winter.

And isn’t it ironic that a news service unveiled the information-access problem by getting information about the lack of access to it?

The free flow of information is one of the attractions of a strong democracy. If that information is getting plugged up in the bureaucratic pipeline, major plumbing needs to be done sooner than later.

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