After six months of filing one Freedom of Information Act request each weekday, I’ve learned a lot — though not necessarily from the records I asked for.
In January, I launched One Freedom of Information Request a Day(1FOIRaDay), an open records project that aims to test the federal government’s compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. Since then, through a crash course in the FOIA process, I’ve gotten a pretty good idea of how the system works (or doesn’t work).
Some of the most important things I’ve learned are when to ask for help, where to look for resources and how to cultivate a zen-like calm in the face of FOIA-borne frustration.
I’ve learned to appreciate the FOIA officers that work to produce records instead of consigning requests to a dank dungeon of bureaucracy, as some of their colleagues do. I’ve also learned to assume the envelope mailed to me from a government agency does not contain the records I requested — rather, it’s another ransom letter saying I’d better clarify my request, or else. But before we dive into the nitty gritty, a few stats on the project so far:
As you can see, I haven’t had much success in freeing information from the government in a timely fashion. A measly 19 percent of requests have resulted in either a full grant or partial grant, and more troubling, a large minority (43 percent) appear to be at a standstill. In those instances, agencies have surpassed the 20-day statutory period in which they are required to respond to requests — many of them claiming the requests present “unusual circumstances” or are too broad.
In one case, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wrote to say a May. 9 request asking for emails from five of its administrators to two members of the House Committee on Financial Services was too broad, despite the request specifying the names of the administrators, the lawmakers and the five-month timeframe for which records were being sought. In another case, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a Jan. 19 request for data related to Legionella bacteria exposure was too broad. Even after agreeing to limit the request, I still haven’t received the records.
The Department of Justice still hasn’t provided records pursuant to a Jan. 31 request for former Attorney General Sally Yates’ emails regarding President Trump’s travel ban, even though the agency placed the request in its “simple” processing track. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has yet to produce a single page of records in connection to weekly requests I began sending on Feb. 13 for animal welfare investigations. I still haven’t gotten records from a Feb. 9 request for 12 Peace Corps Inspector General sexual assault and sexual harassment investigations.
If there’s any recourse for this type of foot-dragging, I’m not sure what it is.
On the other hand, the records I have been able to secure are pretty cool. One dataset provided by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service shows the assignment location of every FSIS employee, who usually are stationed at meatpacking facilities or similar businesses. This collection of 576 pages of CDC emails gives valuable insight into the agency’s actions before and after it unceremoniously cancelled its climate summit scheduled to take place in February. This Dept. of Energy document shows the items that have been removed from its website post-Obama.
Six months in, I’ve asked for help (like, a lot). I’d be remiss in failing to mention Syracuse University’s FOI-L listserv, which is indispensable if you’re looking for open records advice. The Government Attic can help requesters cook up new ideas for requests; The Memory Hole 2 and The Black Vault have this FOIA thing figured out; the National Security Archive is a great resource; The Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives (OGIS), which offers FOIA mediation services, does what it can to help requesters.
Perhaps I’ll have more luck in the second half of this project than in the first. Perhaps one of these days, I’ll open the mailbox to find the government has sent records instead of another obstructionist FOIA response. A man can dream.
Until then, I’ll keep filing.
You can follow the 1FOIRaDay project on Twitter or on my website. In the interest of openness, I’m now allowing public access to the Google spreadsheet I use to track requests and notate responses. The key begins at row 319. Feedback, suggestions and ideas are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you’d like to donate to this project, you may do so here.