Among the many legislative leftovers still sitting in the freezer as the 111th Congress adjourns, the Public Online Information Act (POIA) looks like it will be staying on ice.
The bill would require the government to make all public records available on the Internet in a free and searchable format. It would also establish a committee to set guidelines for the three branches of government on how to best post the information.
Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat, introduced the bill March and Sen. John Tester, a Montana Democrat, did likewise in his chamber in May. But with a relatively short legislative year ahead of the November election, the issue failed to gain traction.
Although the federal government has already designated a lot of information as public, it still often requires citizens to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to request paper or digital copies, says Israel’s chief of staff, Jack Pratt. “One of the things about putting information online is that you can put different pieces together quickly,” he says.
Some of the information that POIA would bring online include reports disclosing lobbying activities by government contractors and instances when third parties – not the government – pay for executive branch officials’ travel.
The Sunlight Foundation, along with other government transparency advocates, supports the POIA bill and even has a website dedicated to it. In a May blog post, Daniel Schuman, the Foundation’s policy counsel, wrote that “no other transparency legislation so dramatically shifts the presumption from government secrecy to government openness.”
Schuman told the Center for Public Integrity that if POIA passed it would reduce, but not erase, the need for FOIA requests. Since the government’s new transparency site, www.data.gov came online, it has reduced demands for FOIA, he says.
“FOIA and POIA are complementary,” Schuman says. “FOIA takes things that are not required to be publically available but are not secret. POIA makes things publically available” and puts them online. If Congress approves POIA, citizens would still need to request records that can’t be kept secret but are not automatically public – like their own FBI file, for example.
Schuman says there’s always next session. When the 112th Congress begins work in January, Pratt says Israel will “definitely” be reintroducing the bill.
ABOUT THE DATA
What: The Public Online Information Act (POIA) would make it easier to get documents that the government already designates as public.
Where: The law would require all three branches of the U.S. government to post public records online.
Availability: Many materials are technically available now, but citizens must ask for printed or electronic copies or file a FOIA request to obtain them.
The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.
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