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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

US Congress passes FOI reforms

The US Senate and House of Representatives have finally passed legislation to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, after much negotiation to resolve differences in versions passed by each earlier this year. It's not clear yet whether President Bush who had problems with the earlier versions will sign, or whether the Act might come into force automatically as Congress has now adjourned for the year.

Some of the key features of the Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National (OPEN) Government Act include a standard for disclosure unless harm would result; extension of the law to non proprietary information held by government contractors; creation of a system to enable each applicant to track the status of a request; establishment of an office of the ombudsman to investigate complaints; and a right to costs where an applicant is substantially successful in challenging an agency decision, including where an agency releases documents after a legal challenge has commenced.

The Bill shortens the statutory period for processing to 20 days (the Victorian Government is proposing to extend the deadline there from 30 days to 75 days in some circumstances!!) and provides that a failure to meet the deadline would result in a refund of charges. Independent journalists (including bloggers) are entitled to the already generous (by Australian standards) fee concessions available to media organisations.

Some of the US changes are highly relevant as we ponder next steps (says he hopefully) even though we have been a long way ahead with ombudsman involvement in complaint investigation.

A fuller summary of the changes is at the end of this article posted by All American Patriots.

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