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FOIA Audit: Department of the Interior and the Blocked FOIA Blog

March 16, 2011

Took actions required by the Emanuel Bauer Memo.

In my previous post, I included a video praising the Department of Agriculture for responding extremely positively to the survey’s FOIA request.  The volume of their overwhelming response tested the structural limits of the manila folder dedicated to their agency.

Since this is Sunshine Week, I wanted to highlight another excellent agency response that was more merciful to its manila folder than the Department of Agriculture. The Department of the Interior found about 116 pages of responsive documents.  For the sake of the survey’s metrics, the Department of the Interior placed themselves among the top thirteen agencies that fulfilled both steps of the Emanuel-Bauer memorandum.  However, the Department of the Interior earned this spotlight by scoring style points that we were unable to objectively evaluate for the official survey.

Firstly, the Department of the Interior’s response was another sign of the growing momentum in FOIA offices to make use of modern technology, as instructed by President Obama on his first day in office.  The bulk of the documents released were sent on a compact disc.  It’s not exactly a 21st century solution, but it is inexpensive and easy to disseminate.  The full survey noted the use of agency FOIA websites to release documents.  The Department of the Interior was not one of those 23 agencies, but they were the only agency to provide a compact disc in lieu of a sacrificial tree.

The most poignant example of reform in FOIA practices came in the form of this internal email from the Department of the Interior.

On the surface, this is simply the work of a website blocker with a sense of humor employed by the Department of the Interior.  Once everyone stops laughing, the very fact that this email was released speaks volumes.  In the past, internal deliberations such as this might have been exempted from release under the b(2) FOIA exemption.  The ability to see internal deliberation allows people to see how their government actually works.

On a practical level, this email is indicative of three substantive actions happening at the Department of the Interior.  First, Obama’s Day One memo on FOIA was actually distributed and discussed by FOIA officers.  Secondly, internal deliberations such as this led to the development of new training materials (which were also released in this FOIA response).  And finally, the shenanigans of the Orwellian website blocker were likely curtailed, as much as the follow-up emails can lead us to believe.

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