Openness means disclosure, followed by dissemination, which enables further interactions. But too often government agencies never make it past the first step – the decision to disclose. And so this is where reform efforts should start.
Despite the President’s declared commitment to disclosure, not even the White House meets the standard that he has set. For example, the public cannot access Obama Administration Presidential Policy Directives (PPDs) or Policy Study Directives (PSDs) through the White House web site, even when such directives are unclassified. The problem is not that the directives are in the wrong digital format, but that they have not been officially released in any format.
The failure to disclose is widespread. The intelligence community’s Open Source Center will not release its products even when they are unclassified and non-copyrighted. The Central Intelligence Agency will not release a digital version of its CREST database of declassified historical records. The military services have migrated much of their unclassified content away from the public web and placed it behind access-controlled portals. And so on.
Therefore, new emphasis should be placed on affirmative disclosure requirements. New mechanisms are needed to induce agencies to reconsider non-disclosure practices, and to adjudicate difficult cases. While the FOIA can facilitate access to particular records, it is not well-suited to the release of entire record categories.
One way to encourage improvements in disclosure practices would be to task agency CIOs to facilitate release of all non-exempt records, and to respond to public requests for modification of existing policies.