A few weeks ago I came across this piece about Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIA) in the United States. These are requests made by the public (usually by curious citizens and reporters) to get access to government documents. In Canada, there is a similar act – called Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act (ATIP) – that does more or less the same thing but has a slightly differently named and was passed almost two decades later.
Frequently, in talks I’ve given, I’m mentioned how the ATIP process is deeply broken. It frequently takes months for an ATIP request to be processed. Moreover, there is growing evidence that political staff have been interfering with the ATIP process, violating rules to ensure that citizens do not get the information they legally have a right to.
There is an old line about the internet, first quoted by John Gilmore: “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” I think the same may increasingly true about government. Whether documents are actually be censored by conservative staffers or whether they simply take 6 months to arrive – in either case, for anyone who grew up with google – these are acts of censorship. For a growing number of people, an opaque and slow moving government is simple “damage” that must be routed around. That isn’t always possible, but where it is, people will ignore government. This is not a good outcome – having a generation of citizens growing up ignoring government is a disaster from a recruiting perspective, but also from a regulatory compliance, legal and democratic engagement perspective.
So, I was fascinated to read, in Government Executive, how Open Data and posting information online (in Machine Readable formats) can radically reduce the pressure of the FOIA or ATIP process. Radically reduce it. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency in the US claims it reduced FOIA requests by 96%! As the article states:
Larry Gottesman, national FOIA officer for the Environmental Protection Agency, said emerging technologies present significant opportunities for agencies trying to eliminate FOIA pileups. EPA has reduced its pending requests by about 96 percent, in part by creating databases of popular information. The agency’s online reading rooms reduce the need to file a request in the first place, according to Gottesman.
The key here is not using PDFs to share information and not to have lame search engines that limit what citizens can search, or that return information in a manner that makes it hard to analyze or search. Just give us all the information and let us use our own search tools. That should always be at least one option. It will help government reduce the insane ATIP burden that sucks up precious resources and it will help citizens find what they need faster.
ATIP is broken, but there are ways to make it much, much better using technology.