May 15, 2009
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act nearly 43 years ago, on September 6, 1966. That law became the standard of government openness, affecting all levels of government — federal, state and local.
President Barack Obama reaffirmed the importance of FOIA in his very first official acts when, on Jan. 21, he issued his first two presidential memoranda on freedom of information and open government.
Today, students and faculty of the LBJ School of Public Affairs will host a free, day-long conference on open government on the Internet, an event that will include White House Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley and Texas Comptroller Susan Combs. The conference will be at the LBJ Library and Presidential Museum, and will be co-sponsored by the LBJ Library, the LBJ School and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
The Freedom of Information Act, as powerful as it has been over the past 40 years, may be supplemented by a new form of access online. FOIA is a mechanism for citizens to “knock on the door” of government and ask for information. But new trends in presenting information on the Internet could make open access to public data a rule rather than an exception.
When he was a senator, Barack Obama co-sponsored, with Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the Federal Transparency Act of 2006, which put federal spending data on a Web site. USAspending.gov allows citizens to access and download information about all federal contracts, grants, loans and other public spending.
The next step in freedom of information and open government is open access to data, and in a format that can be used by any reasonably competent programmer. We’ll then see innovative ways to monitor what government is doing, especially important in a time of fiscal crisis.
Texas already is a leader in transparency, but there is more work to be done, particularly in the budget process. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, sponsored a package of bills this session that would move us forward on budget data transparency.
LBJ’s vision for the Freedom of Information Act transformed how government works. But now it’s time for a new vision, using the tools of the Internet and the World Wide Web, to take freedom of information to a new level.
Pappoe is a master’s student in public affairs at the LBJ School at the University of Texas.