Few things are more consistent in government than its general confusion about public records laws.
This year, The Center for Investigative Reporting received a cardboard box from a state agency in Louisiana in response to our request for documents. Inside was a tumbled mass of papers apparently thrown into the box at random, along with someone’s autobiography, which we hadn’t asked for, called, “Continuing Aftershocks: A Tortuous Quest for Closure.”
At the federal level, government officials usually are more organized about requests from journalists. Many agencies have entire staffs devoted to fulfilling, whittling down or outright blocking requests filed through the Freedom of Information Act.
Since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed FOIA into law in 1966, countless journalists, private citizens, political operatives, nonprofits and corporations have used the law to unearth the workings of the U.S. government. It’s been significantly amended several times, including in 2007.
Now there’s a chance to make FOIA stronger for journalists and the public. And CIR will have a part in it.
This month, CIR reporter Andrew Becker agreed to serve on the federal FOIA Modernization Advisory Committee. The National Archives is spearheading the committee, which will meet four times a year in Washington for the next two years.
Half the committee consists of representatives from government agencies, including the CIA and the U.S. Department of Justice. The other half includes representatives from nonprofits, academics and attorneys. Two journalists, including Becker, will represent the news media.
Becker – who will not receive payment or travel reimbursement from the government for his work – is looking for advice from journalists and others that he can bring to the committee’s attention.
“I’d love to hear any thoughts on how FOIA can be better, more efficient, smarter,” he said. “Conversely, what would you hate to see happen? What about flat fees instead of itemized bills, for example?”
We’ve created an online form so you can tell us your ideas. Take a moment and share your experiences with us.
Becker, who covers border and national security issues for CIR, has been fighting for public records his entire reporting career. Along with CIR reporter G.W. Schulz and former CIR researcher Tia Ghose, Becker helped lead the long battle to dislodge records from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Last year, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse cited Becker and CIR’s use of FOIA as a great example of how to ferret out important news stories.
CIR has a deep interest in public records, for obvious reasons. We helped create FOIA Machine to assist journalists and others with managing their information requests. We have been spearheading #FOIAFriday on Twitter and Facebook with CIR reporter Matt Drange and will expand the conversation in the coming weeks to solicit insights for the committee.
Much of our reporting is built on data and documents we’ve acquired through state and federal public records laws. Without these laws – and the amazing attorneys who work to pursue these claims – our jobs would be demonstrably harder.
But even with California voters approving changes this month to the state’s Public Records Act, reform is needed throughout state and federal government.
A CIR reporter recently received a bill from a California county for $35,019.40 to produce three years’ worth of payroll data. The itemized bill included nearly $9,000 to “reconcile data with payroll report.” CIR is fighting the request, which remains unfulfilled.
Still, this is much less than the $1 million the U.S. Labor Department claimed it needed to fulfill an Associated Press request for the email addresses of political appointees.
We’re excited that Becker will be curating responses from around the journalism community to improve FOIA. Take a moment to fill out the form about your experience with FOIA, follow @CIRonline and #FOIAFriday to join the conversation, or feel free to email Becker directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.