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by Greg Munno on November 23rd, 2014

The goal of FOIA Project is to provide the public with timely and complete information about every instance in which the federal government grants or withholds records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Updated daily, this “FOIA accountability engine” now includes detailed information on every case that challenges government withholding in federal court. And we have started expanding coverage to decisions on FOIA administrative requests on an agency-by-agency basis. Check out our “News” page to see the very latest additions to the FOIA Project’s case, opinion, and appellate listings.

By providing a home for comprehensive information on federal FOIA decisions at every stage, the project aims to: (1) create a mechanism by which agencies and officials who ignore the law are held accountable, and (2) arm the public with the full record of FOIA efforts that have and haven’t worked, so anyone can more effectively surmount frequently used roadblocks to public access.

The FOIA process has long been plagued with routine, flagrant and systematic operational failures. Here are the specific steps we are taking:

  • Harvest and organize — by agency, by district, by plaintiff and in other ways — extensive information about every new instance when government withholding decisions are challenged in federal court. In addition to court records about these cases, additional documents and comments will be sought from both the plaintiffs and the agencies.
  • Continually enhance the FOIA Project website, where anyone can easily locate docket, complaint and attachment information about each case. Entries initially will include the names of the top level agency officials approving specific withholding decisions and of the individuals and attorneys bringing each case.
  • Provide context and meaning to facilitate informed use. Related documents are linked, indexed and tagged in a variety of ways. The constantly updated information about the new filings and the legal developments in the continuing cases are displayed in many ways. Reporting tools now under development will allow users to assess wider patterns and trends relating to particular decision makers, specific agencies, types of documents and particular exemption claims.
  • Facilitate discussion around instances of withholding that most blatantly violate the spirit and letter of FOIA. The project will create a series of apps allowing the public to share their FOIA experiences by uploading the latest agency response that they have received, to provide text and video commentaries (both good and bad) about them and by blogging on other postings. The public also will be invited to nominate and vote on egregious examples of improper withholding that a we will further highlight on the site and on our social media channels.
  • Spread the word. The growing web of online search and networking channels will be fully exploited to ensure that each day’s new set of bureaucratic decisions improperly denying public access to public information reaches an ever-growing audience. Organizations will be encouraged to become FOIA Project partners and to make use of the identified problems in their independent transparency campaigns. Special reports will be developed on selected topics and distributed. Creative new ways to widen a concerned national audience will be sought.

The ultimate goal of the FOIA Project is a more open, responsive government that adheres to the law and ceases improper withholding.  We believe we can affect this change by creating a broad new kind of sanction: the systematic public exposure of those who engage in unlawful withholding.

In short, by altering the climate in which FOIA decisions are made as well as the calculus used by bureaucrats in improperly withholding information, the project seeks fundamental change in public accountability. Full documentation of each instance of improper withholding will force bureaucrats to publicly justify their unjustifiable decisions. And by knowing that their decisions will be subject to scrutiny, the federal officials deciding them will need to give much more weight to the high importance of full disclosure.

The FOIA project is being developed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) with support from Syracuse University, donor gifts, and grants from the CS Fund/Warsh-Mott Legacy, the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the William B. Wiener, Jr. Foundation, the JRS Dryfoos Charitable Lead Trust, and the Stewart R. Mott Foundation.

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