New Presidency Could Mean More Transparency for Public Records

Now that all the glitter and excitement from the inauguration ceremony and balls has passed, it is time for our new President to get to work. In our trying times of war, global warming, and a bad economy, there is a lot of work to be done. Thus, it is interesting to watch what actions the new President will make first. President Obama has made it clear during his campaign that a transparency in government is an important issue to him. Well, in a move that made many public records advocates excited, one of President Obama’s first signings this week included mandates to make presidential records more open. Could it be that the President will actually make good on his campaign promises?

Apparently, during the Bush/Cheney years, the duo had done much to limit the amount of information available to the public. The Bush administration created a ban on access records regarding past presidents until at least 5 years after they leave office. However, Obama’s executive order actually reversed this ban. In fact, in his order, Obama address, the government’s tendency to deny public records requests when he wrote: “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 order then goes on to address that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests should be responded to promptly. The directive requires agencies to presume that records are public, unless there is a compelling reason to the contrary. Also, any denials to records requests on former presidents based on executive privilege will be reviewed by the Attorney General and White House Counsel. The decision on whether such record request can be denied will be the decision of the current President. The former rules allowed past presidents to make the decision.

The list doesn’t stop there. In the President’s order, the attorney general has been asked to create new FOIA guidelines that will help further the new administration’s efforts at transparency. The President also requests that the attorney general create new FOIA guidelines to share with the agency within 4 months. Perhaps the new guidelines will help the agencies work more cooperatively with in the spirit of the FOIA: creating freedom of information.

Thanks to the FOIA and the E-FOIA (a law which addresses electronic access to public records), there is a great deal of information available for public access. Resources such as The Free Public Records Directory can help you discover which agencies and organizations provide access to records various, both online and otherwise. However, it has been no secret that accessing records from the federal government is not always an easy task. Perhaps these new orders from the President can help change that. What are your thoughts on the new FOIA orders? Have they gone far enough to ensure transparency, or is it just more political rhetoric?

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