“Transparency” is a noble pursuit. Most Americans applaud the Administration’s desire to improve transparency in our government. However, it’s not a new idea. The “Freedom of Information Act” (FOIA) was signed in 1966 to allow for disclosure of documents controlled by the US government. Some subsequent laws, the Privacy Act, the Sunshine Act, EO 12356, EO 13233 among others, sought to control the flow of information for, in most cases, practical reasons. Then there’s the cost. Most taxpayers understand that Agencies work within a budget and can only achieve a measured level of “transparency”. So early on, we see conflicts in the philosophy of a “Transparent Government”.
Of course, not all information is appropriate for public dissemination. Most reasonable professionals understand some of the challenges a transparent government faces. Which information should be shared? How often? In what manner should it be shared? Right now, within the standard “FOIA” processes employed by most agencies, a responsible official is charged with responding to requests for information and determining the suitability of the request. Then the documents are copied and mailed, fulfilling the request. This reactive approach to transparency is labor-intensive and cost-prohibitive. In some cases, FOIA officers do nothing all day but fill requests for information.
Information Security wisely prohibits the public from accessing government databases. Even if they could, what value does the general public gain from volumes of data? After all, we’re looking for meaningful information, not columns of numbers. The government can’t justify the cost of sending one copy of everything to every American and can’t allow just anyone to crawl through their files. So the goal is to share appropriate information in a meaningful format without putting extraordinary burden on the Agencies.
Almost 40 years ago Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). One of the main tenets of NEPA is to involve the public in the planning and management of public lands. It required government to share all of its information related to land management decision making. Agencies have had to operate their land management policies “transparently” for decades. And they have learned some important lessons.
Originally, documents were created and mailed to anyone who had expressed an interest. More of a proactive approach, but it still leaves room for improvement. An analysis could be volumes, and nation-wide policies could interest millions of people. The burden on the government was the same whether their information sharing was proactive or reactive. Of course, online databases could be leveraged for efficiency, but that still requires resources to format and maintain the data.
The Forest Service has introduced a proactive way of sharing information electronically. They’ve leveraged their own, internal systems that meet their own tracking and reporting needs, and have developed extensions specifically designed to provide the public with meaningful information. Agency leadership, field personnel and FOIA officers have all collaborated and determined what information should be shared with the public regularly, and how it should be presented. Now, field personnel populate their internal systems with data for their own purposes, and in the background a pre-determined subset of that data is formatted and shared with the public automatically, on a regular basis. This solution goes a long way in improving transparency without putting any extra burden on the Agency, or the taxpayers.
The Forest Service automatically publishes agency information here: