FOIA a bad search engine, but use tactics to speed it up

I ran across a funny graphic posted by blogger Edward Vielmetti on AnnArbor.com (See posting of his FOIA Friday blog) playing on “Google classic.”  Edward then lists great tips for getting public records, with my favorites (including some of my own input):

1. Get the information through other means if you can – FOIA is often the slowest possible way to get information. Sometimes it’s already posted online, or an official might be able to help you get it. Journalists have learned to get information through other means than FOIA, likely resulting in the fact that only 5 percent of FOIA requests are submitted by journalists.

2. Know what you want before you ask. The more specific you can be the better.

3. FOIA is expensive. Redaction costs, search fees and copy costs can make information retrieval spendy. Make sure to ask for a waiver if you are gathering information with a public purpose (as a journalist, researcher, etc.). If the agency doesn’t respond within the statutory time, get your copy fees waived.

4. Too many people give up. Few people appeal denials, but often (as much as a third of the time, according to one study), a quick appeal letter can get you some or all of what you asked for. See RCFP for a sample appeal letter.

5. Get to know people. Develop relationships with people within an agency to speed things along. Treat people with respect and courtesy.

FOI In Action…

FOI tells the story here, complete with photos

A Blairsville police officer is off the job pending an investigation after she pulled a gun on a young man who she said became unruly inside the police station.

Officer Janelle Lydic said Christopher Hall, 19, of Blairsville, was making a complaint against his landlord and became enraged when she tried escorting him out, according to the police report.

Posting public employee salaries discourages favoritism

The Asbury Park Press posted on its Web site a great searchable database of federal employees and their 2008 salaries. The form allows you to search by name, agency, title or location. You can also click on the column headers (name, agency, title, salary, state, county, etc.,) to have the lists sorted in order. I didn’t know, for example, that there is a federal employee in my state (Arizona) that makes $327,000.

The paper notes the source of the data: U.S. Office of Personnel Management. It also notes a lot of caveats of how much information is kept secret: “Employees involved in security work, the FBI, CIA, Defense Department, nuclear materials, IRS, and jobs essential to national security are excluded. The list contains about 70 percent of executive branch employees, but not all departments report to the Office of Personnel Management. This list does not cover the White House, Congress, the Postal Service, and independent agencies and commissions.”

Since when is the IRS essential to national security, any more than the U.S. Parks Service or Department of Energy? I find it interesting that some agencies provide information and others don’t. The secrecy allows for cronyism and nepotism. There’s no way to identify shenanigans unless our paid government employees are public. Request the salaries of your local government employees and then find out if favoritism is occurring (family members being hired, business associates on the payroll, etc.).

I saw a similar shying away from posting government employee salaries with names by The Arizona Republic, which provides university salaries online but redacted names except for those over $95,000. I’m sorry, but everyone should be listed by name. Taxpayers pay our salaries so they ought to know what their money is going to. The public interest in preventing waste and corruption outweighs the discomfort of public employees. Without names the data are useless.

By the way, in full disclosure as a public employee, my salary is $72,200 and you can find this by requesting the records from the University of Arizona or looking it up in a binder in the UA Library. As I tell my students, they can now decide whether I am overpaid and should be docked pay or whether I don’t get paid enough – most politely remain quiet!

Dave is way too humble to post this…

So I will: he testified before Congress on FOI this week!

Here is a link to some coverage.

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Bailout records public – go get ‘em!

A federal appeals court ruled today that the Federal Reserve Board must release records relating to the bank buyout to Bloomberg News, saying the public interest outweighs fears of alleged harm to banks (see story). Good for them!

The court provided a three-part test for when the government can keep such records secret: When the information is a trade secret, when it must be obtained from a person (rather than the agency), and when it is privileged or confidential.

This is great news, and sends a signal that when the government spends money to help businesses, taxpayers deserve to know where their bucks are going. Based on this thinking, the public should have access to records documenting subsidies to businesses, bailouts, and any other situation where we are footing the bill.

Have you seen improvements in FOIA?

The big question at Thursday’s hearing before the U.S. House Information Policy, Census, and National Archives Subcommittee was whether we’ve seen any improvements in FOIA since President Obama took office (see written testimony of the 10 panelists and the Webcast).

If you listen to the first panel, composed of a FOIA officer from EPA, the federal ombudsman, director of the Office of Information Policy, and other government folk, you will hear that backlogs have been vastly reduced.

If you listen to the second panel, including requesters from Judicial Watch, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Citizen, Sarah Cohen and myself, you will hear that nothing much has changed (Judicial Watch said it’s gotten worse, Public Citizen said parts might have improved, and the rest of us said we haven’t noticed a difference).

What about you? Have you seen FOIA work better during the past year, or worse? Or business as usual? For a related story about how Obama’s efforts have just scratched the surface, see the latest issue of The News Media and the Law.


Our Kinda Guy…

This Sunshine Week, meet Ned Sloan, FOI warrior! Ned-Sloan-us

Mr. Sloan, our Sunshine Week hat is off to ya!

Webcast FOIA discussions Thursday and Friday

Here are two hearings this week regarding FOIA that you can attend in your jammies:

1. At 2 p.m. EST Thursday panelists will discuss the state of FOIA at a hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Information Policy, Census, and National Archives Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Federal Ombudsman Miriam Nisbet will be one of the panelists, along with myself. Watch it live online and check the site later for our written testimony (I include more than 40 citations to studies regarding FOIA in case people want to learn more about backlogs and other issues).

2. OpenTheGovernment.org, Public Citizen, and the Center for American Progress will host a live Webcast event noon to 2 p.m. EST on “Building Government Transparency.” See more information and watch it live. See Nisbet, Patrice McDermott, Sean Moulton and others.

Celebrating an FOI Victory During Sunshine Week

Thought I’d also pass this link along highligting EXACTLY why the FOI Fund is such a swell idea. Sometimes, just promising to be there, should upfront costs balloon, is enough to keep the fight going and get those records!

Two Sunshine-filled days in DC…

Ok, half of one, actually, but who’c counting?

Happy Sunshine Week, all! I attended FOI Day festivities at the Newseum yesterday, and today was a panelist on reducing FOI backlogs at the Collaboration for Government Secrecy’s FOI Day. Now, as I loiter in the airport waiting to go home, a thought struck me: we are closing to real transparency in a whole lot of the federal government than we EVER have been before.

Before you accuse me wearing my rose-colored Obama glasses, consider what the administration, working closely with transparency groups, has accomplished thus far, from the Holder memo reversing the Ashcroft-Gonzalez regime to Data.gov, the Open Government Directive, etc., etc. This is not a partisan deal, people: this bunch just gets after it, and they understand it, and they want it to be a lasting legacy. Obama’s transparency czar, Norm Eisen, was practically giddy talking about this stuff.

Here’s a link to the White House blog with all the pertinent documents mentioned above. Eisen is becoming quite the blogger!

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