June 30, 2016—Today President Obama signed the FOIA Improvement Act, codifying into law comprehensive bipartisan reforms to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for the first time in nearly a decade. Signing of the bill comes days before the 50th anniversary of FOIA, signed into law on July 4, 1966. The FOIA Improvement Act is the result of significant efforts on the part of Congressional leaders, staff members, and open government advocates who have been working to push the FOIA reform legislation that is critical to ensuring government accountability.
Since its enactment, FOIA has been amended multiple times in an effort to improve public access to information and efficiency in processing requests. Notably the OPEN Government Act of 2007 created the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) to serve as the FOIA ombudsman. The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 further strengthens OGIS by giving it the authority to report directly to Congress and provide legislative recommendations without approval from other executive branch agencies.
Importantly the reform bill codifies the presumption of openness—requiring that records are released unless there is a foreseeable harm or legal requirement to withhold them. This language mirrors the Obama Administration’s and the Department of Justice’s 2009 guidance on FOIA, which reversed the policy of the Bush administration that had encouraged agencies to limit discretionary disclosures of information. With these legislative changes, the law makes clear that FOIA, under any administration, must be approached with a presumption of openness.