All of this sounds great and we applaud the president for his clear desire to create a more open government. Still, it all hasn't gone quite as planned. Based on our own experiences and those of some of our colleagues in the transparency community, government openness, has not necessarily been remarkably better under the Obama administration than it was under the Bush administration. CREW conducted a survey of FOIA officers to discover their perceptions of whether information is more freely and easily disseminated. Overwhelmingly, the answer is no. First, FOIA offices do not have adequate resources to handle the volume of requests they get. Officers also report a lack of training and political interference. The new chief FOIA officers, intended to bring more accountability to the agency FOIA process, were described by one survey respondent as a "useless position filled by someone who is already wearing too many managerial hats."
Another major problem confronting the administration is the preservation of records. Record keeping laws are not keeping pace with technology. Electronic records seem to routinely become lost. For example, the Department of Justice was unable to locate many of torture memo author John Yoo's e-mails - were they deliberately deleted or just lost - it is difficult to know.
E-mails are probably some of the most important records for uncovering the truth. While surely, some are just junk - planning lunch or passing jokes, they can also include unguarded truths. Though we all know e-mails are forever and can come back to haunt us - we have Jack Abramoff as exhibit 1 - somehow, we generally still treat them like phone conversations and do not consider they may one day become public. As a result, a trove of information may be contained in these documents and one day, someone may uncover and view an e-mail from a top ranking Obama administration official with as much interest as we view Lincoln's letter to his general today.
What did Noveck say? Bender's Immigration Bulletin has this account:
FOIA? Nah, I've got Beth Noveck on speed dial!
"The White House's open government leader said Americans should not bother filing requests for government documents under the Freedom of Information Act and instead should contact open government officials at agencies who can post or e-mail the materials faster. ... A more effective way to obtain information would be to contact the designated open government officer at a particular agency -- or herself, Noveck said." NextGov, Nov. 15, 2010.
Federal News Radio story here. And here's an excerpt from the cited NextGov story by Aliya Silverstein:
Bypass FOIA and seek data from agencies, says Obama officialBTW, I just googled Noveck's phone number and looked for it on the White House website and Open Government Initiative blog. So far as I can tell, Beth Noveck's phone number is unlisted.
BY ALIYA STERNSTEIN 11/15/2010
The White House's open government leader said Americans should not bother filing requests for government documents under the Freedom of Information Act and instead should contact open government officials at agencies who can post or e-mail the materials faster.
Beth Noveck, deputy chief technology officer for open government, on Monday said the purpose of the Obama administration's transparency agenda is to institutionalize a culture in which agencies proactively release data so that disclosing government information is the default. She was addressing complaints about denials of FOIA requests at an event hosted by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, a liberal think tank. The talk centered on the conflict between national security and government transparency.
"Why are you writing to the lawyers? We all know it's going to take months and months. That's how FOIA works," said Noveck, who is on leave as a professor at New York Law School, where she researches intellectual property and constitutional law. "The manual nature of the process is so egregious . . . so burdensome." A more effective way to obtain information would be to contact the designated open government officer at a particular agency -- or herself, Noveck said.
For example, in response to public requests, the Patent and Trademark Office this summer partnered with Google to offer bulk downloads of patent materials, such as published applications, grants and assignments, as well as trademark documents, including registrations and applications.
But legal experts debating data disclosure disagreed with Noveck's advice about bypassing FOIA, arguing that the White House needs to expedite the process. "They should make FOIA work," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "You shouldn't have to go around [the process] and call Beth Noveck," she added, noting the general public probably does not know who she is...
For background on Noveck's world-view, her 2008 Democracy Journal article on "Wiki Government" can be found by clicking here.
UPDATE: ACS has posted this video recording of the event on its website: