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The Baker's Dozen: 13 Policy Areas Critical to an Effective, Ethical, and Accountable Government

February 18, 2021

Since 2015, the Project On Government Oversight has welcomed each new Congress with a collection of recommendations for legislative action to strengthen democracy, crack down on misconduct, and reduce waste and corruption. These recommendations are based largely on findings from our own investigations, and together have formed essential, nonpartisan "to do" lists for Congress.Many of the recommendations in this report focus on issues POGO has championed since our founding in 1981, such as making government spending less wasteful and more effective or providing insiders with meaningful whistleblower protections. But this report also reflects a new and growing focus on equity and fairness in our justice system.

Chemical Hazards in Your Backyard: Do Your First Responders Have the Information They Need in an Emergency?

April 15, 2015

Now more than two years after the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion, this report asks the question that haunted the community in the aftermath of the tragedy: why didn't the people who arrived to help fight the fire know that extremely flammable and explosive materials were inside?Ten volunteer firefighters who rushed toward the fire were among the 15 killed in the explosion that followed. In addition to the deaths, the explosion destroyed three schools, a nursing home, and 37 city blocks, and over 200 people were injured. But it seems that neither the firefighters nor the town officials who approved the school sitings fully understood the risks the fertilizer storage facility presented.Congress passed a law almost three decades ago that was designed to ensure that local communities are fully aware of hazardous substances near them and that emergency personnel know what to do in the event of a disaster like West, Texas. A few years later, an additional law required more reporting and planning. But local communities in many areas of the country still seem unaware and unprepared to deal with emergencies. As the number of chemical facilities increases and population centers expand, as plants age and inspection funds decline, the number of individual Americans at risk from toxic emissions, leaks, and explosions will grow.This report examines the chemical reporting to states that occurs under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA), using a sample of six states, and the reporting to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that was established under the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments and the federal Risk Management Program.

Making the Grade: Access to Information Scorecard 2015

March 9, 2015

A building block of American democracy is the idea that as citizens, we have a right to information about how our government works and what it does in our name.The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires federal agencies to promptly respond to public requests for information unless disclosure of the requested information would harm a protected interest. But implementation of the law since its passage in 1966 has been uneven and inconsistent across federal agencies.This is the second year we have conducted a very detailed comparative analysis of the performance of the 15 federal agencies that consistently receive the most FOIA requests. Combined, these 15 agencies received over 90 percent of all information requests for each of the last two years. We examined their performance in three key areas:The establishment of clear agency rules guiding the release of information and communication with those requesting information;The quality and "user-friendliness" of an agency's FOIA website; andThe timely, complete processing of requests for information.The number of requests each agency receives, the complexity of the requests, and the number of staff assigned within an agency to process them varies widely and can impact performance.The results of our analysis: eight out of 15 agencies improved their overall scores this year, and in each of the three performance areas, more agencies received the highest grades (A). But only two agencies improved their FOIA policy guidelines, and processing scores actually declined in eight agencies. Ten of the agencies failed to achieve a satisfactory overall grade.Fulfilling the promise of full, timely public access to meaningful government information is an ongoing, complex process that requires leadership and commitment. The Obama administration, Congress, and agency leaders need to ensure that agencies have the staff and resources they need to process requests in a timely manner.

Kids in Danger Zones: One in Three U.S. Schoolchildren at Risk from Chemical Catastrophes

September 1, 2014

Our report Kids in Danger Zones, examines the number of children who attend a school located within the self-reported vulnerability zone of over 3,400 high-risk chemical facilities in the U.S. and offers ways we can take action today to keep our kids safe.Over one in every three schoolchildren in America today (36 percent of pre-kindergarten through high school students) attends a school within the vulnerability zone of a hazardous chemical facility.Over 19.6 million children in 48 states are in a vulnerability zone. Most of the children, their parents, and their teachers have no idea that they are at risk.Half of these children are in schools located in more than one chemical vulnerability zone. The most at-risk school – San Jacinto Elementary School in Deer Park, Texas – is located in the vulnerability zones of 41 different chemical facilities.Houston, Texas; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas are the most high-risk metro areas – they contain many schools in multiple vulnerability zones.The states with the most high-risk counties are Texas, Virginia, Kentucky, and Louisiana

Making the Grade: Access to Information Scorecard 2014

March 10, 2014

A building block of American democracy is the idea that as citizens, we have a right to information about how our government works and what it does in our name. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires federal agencies to promptly respond to public requests for information unless disclosure of the requested information would harm a protected interest. Unfortunately, since its passage in 1966 and reform in 1974, federal agencies have failed to implement the law consistently, which can make it challenging for citizens to gain access to public information as the law guarantees.This analysis evaluates the performance of the 15 federal agencies that received the greatest number of FOIA requests in fiscal year 2012. These agencies received over 90 percent of all information requests that year. We examined their performance in three key areas:Processing requests for information (the rate of disclosure, the fullness of information provided, and timeliness of the response);Establishing rules for information access (effectiveness of agency policy on withholding information and communicating with requesters); andCreating user-friendly websites (facilitating the flow of information to citizens, online services, and up-to-date reading rooms).The results are sobering. None of the 15 agencies earned exemplary scores (an overall A grade), and only eight earned "passing grades" (60 or more out of a possible 100 points). The low scores are not due to impossibly high expectations. In each of three performance areas, at least one agency earned an A, showing that excellence is possible. But the fact that no agency was able to demonstrate excellence across all three areas illustrates the difficulty agencies seem to be having inconsistently combining all the elements of an effective disclosure policy.

Freedom of Information Act Performance, 2012: Agencies Are Processing More Requests but Redacting More Often

March 13, 2013

A building block of American democracy is the idea that citizens have a right to information about how their government works and what it does in their name. However, citizen access to public information was only established by law in 1966 with the passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The law has since been strengthened and improved over the years, and FOIA currently requires federal agencies to formally respond to requests for information within 20 working days or potentially face a lawsuit. While there are exemptions that agencies can use to avoid the disclosure of sensitive information or information that violates privacy rights, agencies processed over half a million FOIA requests in 2012. In about 41 percent of these cases, the information requested was released "in full" with no parts "redacted" -- i.e., clean, complete documents with no blacked-out parts were provided to the person who requested the information. How does this compare to past years and past administrations? How well has President Obama met his goal of being the most transparent administration in history with regard to access to public information? This report examines the processing of FOIA requests from 25 major federal agencies in 2012 and reviews the processing of FOIA requests by agencies since 1998.

Delivering on Open Government: The Obama Administration's Unfinished Legacy

March 10, 2013

This report examines progress made during President Obama's first term toward open government goals outlined in a comprehensive set of recommendations that the open government community issued in November 2008, titled Moving Toward a 21st Century Right-to-Know Agenda. We examine activity in the three main areas of the 2008 report: creating an environment within government that is supportive of transparency, improving public use of government information, and reducing the secrecy related to national security issues.

The Right to Know, the Responsibility to Protect: State Actions Are Inadequate to Ensure Effective Disclosure of the Chemicals Used in Natural Gas Fracking

July 1, 2012

Do you know how many natural gas wells are operating in your state or near the watershed that supplies your drinking water? You should.Most of those wells rely on a process known as hydraulic fracturing (or natural gas fracking) that employs toxic chemicals to crack open shale beds and release methane gas. Both the chemicals used in fracking and the methane gas released pose a risk to local water supplies and the health of those who live nearby.Community groups, individual citizens, and public officials have a right to know which chemicals are used in the fracking process. This report, The Right to Know, the Responsibility to Protect: State Actions Are Inadequate to Ensure Effective Disclosure of the Chemicals Used in Natural Gas Fracking, lays out what an effective chemical disclosure policy would look like, highlighting four key elements:Before receiving a drilling permit, the owners and operators of natural gas wells should gather baseline information on nearby water sources and water and air quality. They should disclose the chemicals they intend to use in the fracking process and commit to regularly monitoring the water and air near the gas wells and near wastewater storage facilities for potential contamination for as long as the well is operating and for some period after operations have ceased.Information on the chemicals used in fracking should be collected from drilling companies, well operators, and manufacturers and should include specific information on the unique chemical identification numbers, concentrations, and the quantity of the chemicals used.States should have clear guidelines limiting "trade secrets" exemptions from disclosure laws to prevent companies from invoking this loophole to avoid disclosure.Information about the chemicals used at each individual well where fracking occurs should be posted on a public website in a way that allows users to easily search, sort, and download data by chemicals used, companies involved, and well location.

Upholding the Public's Trust: Key Features for Effective State Accountability Websites

March 1, 2012

Transparency is crucial in a democracy – and in a 21st century democracy, transparency means public access to information online. This report considers four key areas of transparency in the U.S. state and federal governments: campaign finance, lobbying, procurement, and public officials' assets. The report describes the key features needed for effective online disclosure in these areas and highlights leading practices in the states.Some information about each of the four topic areas is currently disclosed online by many states, as well as the federal government, illustrating progress on making public official integrity information readily available to the American people. However, there is wide variation within each area in the method and manner of online disclosure.The report explains that thoughtful, citizen-centric disclosure websites share five common elements. The sites are easy to navigate; have the basic information that most users need; provide features that help users explore the data; offer more detailed information for advanced users; and allow users to download the data.The report finds that a number of states are doing well. Colorado's campaign finance website has a well designed interface, and its search features make it very easy for the average citizen to find information. Massachusetts' lobby disclosure website provides the information needed to paint a clear picture by linking a lobbyist's activities to particular legislation and recording his or her position on that legislation. However, no state has a uniformly user-friendly site.The parallel federal accountability websites explored in the report are doing a little better than state websites overall, except in the area of financial and asset disclosure by public officials; in that area, the federal government lags behind.

Assessing Progress Toward a 21st Century Right to Know

March 1, 2011

On Nov. 12, 2008, the right-to-know community published a set of detailed transparency recommendations for President-elect Barack Obama and Congress. Those recommendations, titled Moving Toward a 21st Century Right-to-Know Agenda, were developed over a two-year period with input from more than 100 groups and individuals. The seventy recommendations urged the new president and the incoming Congress to act quickly on a number of key government openness issues while also encouraging a more systematic, longer-term approach to a variety of other transparency problems that plague the federal government. The recommendations were endorsed by more than 300 organizations and individuals from across the political spectrum. A senior White House official privately called the recommendations a "blueprint for the Obama administration."The report organized the majority of the recommendations into three chapters.The National Security and Secrecy chapter provided specific recommendations to address the increase in government secrecy that has occurred due to professed national and homeland security concerns.The Usability of Government Information chapter focused on recommendations for how interactive technologies can make information more easily accessible and usable, including protecting the integrity of information and using the best formats and tools.The Creating a Government Environment for Transparency chapter addressed recommendations for creating incentives for openness and shifting government policies and mechanisms to encourage transparency.An additional chapter laid out recommendations for the first 100 days of the administration; the implementation of those recommendations was assessed in an earlier OMB Watch report.This report seeks to assess progress on each recommendation near the midpoint of the president's term as part of Sunshine Week 2011. The many factors at play in each recommendation – vision, leadership, policy, implementation, etc. – make it difficult, if not impossible, to assign simple grades. Instead, we will explain the activities of the administration and Congress on the issues addressed in the recommendations and offer some insights on those actions.It should be noted that no administration could be expected to complete all of the recommendations contained in the 2008 report in just two years' time. There is a very real limit to resources and staff that can be brought to bear on the issue of government openness while still addressing the many other demands on government. Several of the recommendations were explicitly designed as long-term challenges that will take years of work to complete, and of course, the work of implementation is never done.

Controlled Unclassified Information: Recommendations for Information Control Reform

July 1, 2009

Controlled Unclassified Information: Recommendations for Information Control Reform shines a light on how government withholds unclassified information from the American people and offers recommendations on how to balance the need to protect sensitive materials with the duty to disclose information to the public.The report walks the reader through some of the aspects of secrecy labeling and explains technical terms such as sensitive but unclassified (SBU) information and controlled unclassified information (CUI). The report also:Provides a brief history of secrecy labeling, including the origins of sensitive but unclassified informationExplores several critiques of information sharing in the secrecy labeling eraExplains efforts by the George W. Bush administration to streamline the secrecy labeling system through the implementation of a consolidated controlled unclassified information policyOffers recommendations to the Obama administration on how to minimize the use of controlled unclassified information labels while still safeguarding sensitive materials

An Attack on Cancer Research: Industry’s Obstruction of the National Toxicology Program

September 1, 2007

An Attack on Cancer Research: Industry's Obstruction of the National Toxicology Program illustrates how, over the past five years, industry has repeatedly misused the Data Quality Act (DQA) to suppress important cancer-related information from the National Toxicology Program (NTP). The report also provides recommendations for NTP and other government programs and agencies regarding the implementation of DQA.