Public Information Provision in the Digital Age: Implementation and Effects of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act

By Maarten Botterman; Tora Bikson et al. | Go to book overview

3.
IMPLEMENTATION AND IMPACT OF FOIA

This section focuses on the implementation and impact of FOIA. It begins with general observations and then addresses explicitly each of the research questions.


3.1. TRADITIONAL FOIA ACTIVITY

While FOIA and its amendments result from action by the US Congress, the Department of Justice (DOJ) serves as the lead agency in this domain. That is, DOJ helps prepare draft legislation for the Act and any amendments to it; it also handles questions related to any substantive FOIA matters, including questions about applicability and exemptions. And, as head of DOJ, the US Attorney General by tradition sends a memorandum of policy to all agencies from time to time expressing the philosophy of the current administration toward FOIA activity. Another agency, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), handles fee matters as well as issues that involve the Privacy Act43.

Apart from the small set of relatively concentrated functions outlined above, FOIA procedures are highly distributed. There is no single federal FOIA office; rather, each of the entities in the executive branch of government has its own FOIA office. FOIA procedures thus comprise a diverse set of practices carried out differently in different agencies as a function of their organisational structures and missions. Most notably, FOIA procedures range from highly centralised in some agencies to highly decentralised in others.

In the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, all FOIA inquiries go to one headquarters FOIA office, where they are reviewed by staff who determine where the requested data are maintained. EPA has 10 Regions that cover the United States, and most information requests are for data maintained at the regional level (although requests may span regions). Each Region, in turn, has a FOIA officer who receives the request and forwards it to the appropriate programs for handling (different programs, for instance, are responsible for water data and air data). Program offices then provide responses to the headquarters office for dissemination to the requestor. Prior to their dissemination, records are reviewed to make sure that confidential information is not disclosed and other applicable legal requirements are met. In 1999, EPA received nearly 19,000 FOIA requests.

The Department of Commerce, in contrast, is a very large organisation that subsumes a number of comparatively independent bureaus (e.g., the US Census Bureau) and agencies (e.g., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Its FOIA activities, accordingly, are highly decentralised. There is a central FOIA office for the Department as well as a FOIA office in each bureau and agency. If a request is department wide (e.g., requests for records related to the Secretary of Commerce's trade missions over a given time period), it is handled by the FOIA office at headquarters; otherwise, it is forwarded to the appropriate operating unit for handling. FOIA requests can also be made directly to those operating units. Operating units are themselves responsible for responding to requesters (i.e., responses are not returned to headquarters for dissemination) and for tracking unit-specific FOIA activity. Pre-release review of records to address concerns about confidentiality or legal matters is carried out within the responding unit. Commerce handles about 3000 department-level FOIA requests per year.

In other agencies FOIA procedures are partly centralised and partly decentralised. In the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), for instance, the headquarters FOIA office logs and tracks all FOIA requests in a centralised database; but its component programs and centres handle the responses themselves. Similarly, the National Centre for Health Statistics (NCHS) as an operating unit of the Centre for Diseases Control (CDC) can handle its own responses to FOIA requests; but the requests then have to be sent on to CDC to be maintained in a central log.

When federal entities have the creation of data as their mission (e.g., the National Center for Health Statistics [NCHS]), such data can be obtained by individuals and organisations simply by asking for them, without invoking FOIA44. However, a vast amount of data is generated by

____________________
43
The Privacy Act subsumes requests for individually identifiable agency records by the individuals identified therein.
44
These kinds of data are still subject to provisions of the Privacy Act; that is, they can generally be provided either as tabulations or as de-identified microdata; for exceptions, see Constantijn Panis, Cynthia Grant and Roald Euller, “Release of Confidential Microdata for Research: Case Studies of Federal Agencies and Recommendations for the Social Security Administration, ” Santa Monica CA: RAND, PM-1044-SSA, March 2000.

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Public Information Provision in the Digital Age: Implementation and Effects of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Introduction 7
  • 1 - Understanding Foia 9
  • 2 - Comparison Us Vs Dutch Situation 23
  • 3 - Implementation and Impact of Foia 31
  • 4 - Concluding Remarks 47
  • Annexes 52
  • Annex 1: Foia Legal Text 54
  • Annex 2 Wob Legal Text (translated from Dutch) 64
  • Annex 3: Comparative Tables Between Foia and the Wob 69
  • Annex 4 Organisation of Interviews 74
  • Annex 5 – Literature and Web Site References 76
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