On the same day when he issued the memo on openess that I covered in a previous post, President Obama tackled – in a second memo – the problem of modernizing the guidelines to apply the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The memo reminds that
Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve…. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.
When talking about openess of government information and the use of technology to improve citizen’s access (through feeds or mashups), many have in mind public information, i.e. information that can unquestionably put on a government web site, and – actually – should already be there.
But information covered by FOIA is always looked at in a different way. Such information can be disclosed only upon request. And here is where the memo becomes even more interesting:
The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.
They should not wait for specific requests. This is huge. It breaks the boundary between public and FOIA-covered information, one that has often been used to prevent the disclosure of what should have been public information. As the memo reminds, this will require the Attoney General to issue new guidelines, and it is unlikely this will be a painless transition. But when it happens, the genie will be out of the bottle, and those who still believe that government should exercise a strict control of which information should be publisjed and how will be up for a sudden awakening.