Transparency in government is absolutely essential to maintaining a government that is both fair and true to its citizens. At its basic level, government transparency involves elected officials being open, being honest, and being held accountable. The government has an obligation to share information with citizens. By sharing this information with citizens, it ensures that the government is continuously held accountable.
The basis for government transparency began in 1966 when President Johnson signed into law the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This allowed citizens to request and pay for access to government data. By signing FOIA into law, the act allowed for the full or partial disclosure of any previously unreleased information and/or documents controlled by the federal government. Even so, there are nine exemptions to this statute that restrict release of certain documents or records. For example, any internal practices or procedures of an agency are restricted information. At the federal level, Presidential records are exempt from open record requests.
Generally, anyone can make a FOIA request. While there’s no specific form that has to be filled out, the request must be made in writing, clearly and reasonably describing the information you’re seeking, and it must comply with specific agency requirements. Most agencies accept electronic request whether it be by webform, email, or fax. If you’re looking to obtain records about yourself, you’ll have to provide proof of your identity. This not only protects your privacy, but it ensures that private information about you isn’t released to anyone else.
The best thing to do if you’re considering submitting a FOIA request would be to first look and see if the information is available publicly. A lot of information that is usually requested can be found on each agencies website. After doing research, if the information is not available publicly, that’s when you should go ahead and submit your FOIA request. Once your FOIA request is received and process, the agency will notify you in writing if there were any records located and will provide all documents that can be released. If there are documents that are located and cannot be released, the agency will make sure to inform you which of the nine exemptions that information falls under.
FOIA is one of the many resources available to obtain government information. FOIA, essentially, keeps the government in check when it comes to transparency. It holds our elected officials and our government agencies accountable and helps ensure that information that should be made available to the public is done so in a fair and balanced manner.