Open Government Groups Send Letter to President Biden

On Monday, February 22, 2021, a coalition of open-government organizations led by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, submitted a letter to President Biden requesting “Swift Presidential Leadership to Make Transparency a Top Priority for the Biden Administration.”

The organizations included several requests in their letter that are similar to recommendations made by the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) in previous reports to the President. They include calls to:

  • Ensure Compliance with the Foreseeable Harm Standard under the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, which requires the Government to disclose information that could not reasonably be foreseen to “actually cause harm to an interest protected by a relevant FOIA exemption.” This request is similar to PIDB recommendations for integrating risk assessments into classification decisions and declassification reviews;
  • Champion Funding Increases for the Public Records Laws; the PIDB has consistently advocated for adequate funding to support public access to Government information. However, the PIDB also recommended funding for advanced technologies to modernize classification and declassification processes;
  • Embrace Major Reforms of Classification and Declassification, stating that “our government routinely classified vast quantities of information beyond what needs to be legitimately kept secret.” The PIDB has consistently advocated new policies and practices for modernization that will reduce over-classification;
  • Direct the Department of Justice to Fully Leverage its Central Role in implementing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and the Office of Management and Budget to issue new FOIA Guidance. This request is similar to a recommendation in the PIDB’s 2020 Report to the President which recognized the need for top-down coordination within the Executive branch under the leadership and authority of an Executive Agent The PIDB recommended that the President assign an Executive Agent to lead and coordinate modernization of classification and declassification policies and processes across the Executive Branch;
  • Direct Agencies to Proactively Disclose Records, including the release of data sets outside of FOIA’s reading room provisions, ensuring that these records are “easily accessible and machine-readable, i.e., available electronically and in a structured and open format.” The PIDB’s 2016 Report on Technology and its 2020 Report to the President consistently expand this request to include the application of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Process Automation to modernize classification and declassification across the Executive Branch.

In the letter of the 43 open-government organizations, the critical areas targeted for shift leadership from the President all face a major challenge: the roadblock of antiquated systems, processes and policies that can only further impede the transparent and effective management of expanding digital data created by the Government. Until the President addresses the urgent need to invest in, implement, and use advanced technologies to modernize classification and declassification, the American people will continue to lose the full value of information assets across the Executive branch.

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