8  April 2015

The United States was ranked 11th in the Open Government index published by the World Justice Project during the mid March Sunshine Week.

Sunshine Week has been celebrated for the last ten years across the US public sector, from Federal government to local authorities. The celebration takes place in the week encompassing 16 April, the birthday of President Madison, recognised as the father of the Bill of Rights.  There are weak echoes in some other countries.

There may be a less consistent application of access to government information in the United States than in the higher scoring states, but the United States Freedom of Information focus during Sunshine Week has a much greater profile than equivalent measures in most other places.  One illustration is an on line collation of FOI cartoons published in the media during the week.

Good intentions of course are not enough. The Federal Government response rate to FOI requests tells its own story – possibly putting the responsiveness of New Zealand agencies to Official Information requests into a new light!

US law specifies that agencies should respond by disclosing records within 20 business days of a FOIA request, unless subject to one of the exemptions relating to national security,  personal privacy, privileged communications, or maintenance of the law – not unlike New Zealand.

Published statistics on FOIA request handling indicate that in 2014,

  • about 49% were released in part,
  • about 9% were denied.

That leaves a backlog of nearly 160,000 unanswered information requests. This gave rise to increasing numbers of complaints about time delays and processing costs.

There were numerous activities coordinated across the US to raising the profile of open government and promoting processes for accessing information. Not that Congress seems to share the enthusiasm of civil society, with proposed amendments to the FOI Act making no progress.

A bill introduced this year seeks to promote openness and prohibit non disclosure except where there is ‘foreseeable harm’ to government interests – it would limit non disclosure to a 25-year maximum period, unless privilege is claimed as advice to government.

Bills were also introduced during Sunshine Week by which agencies would have to make information fully searchable, and more information would be made available on research funded by the Federal Government.