Freedom of Information Act requests are an essential tool in a journalist's toolbox. The act, passed in 1966, allows anyone to ask for documents from government agencies. Reporters for Pacific Standard have used FOIA to reveal that Department of the Interior officials meet with fossil fuel company representatives far more often than with environmentalists, and that the National Park Service's recent lifting of its plastic-bottle ban was contrary to its own evaluation of the program.
One underappreciated aspect of FOIA requesting is the emotional suspense. Will my request be granted? How long will it take? The law says federal agencies must respond to all requests within 20 business days, but allows for longer fulfillment times under "unusual circumstances." But who gets to decide what's unusual is an unresolved question.
And I'm not the only one having trouble: A 2017 analysis found that the typical FOIA requester waits 142 days before their query is fulfilled, and that less than 39 percent of requests are completed within the mandated 20 business days. The government censored or denied a record number of FOIA requests in 2015, under the Obama administration—then set a fresh record in 2017, under President Donald Trump.
In cases where FOIA requests take a long time, it often seems as if officials are deliberately hiding information. In 2016, a lawsuit revealed that the Department of Justice really did lobby against FOIA reforms that would have made the requesting process easier and put it under greater Congressional oversight. As a result of this pressure, a FOIA improvement bill that passed the House of Representatives unanimously, in 2014, never came up for vote in the Senate.
Sometimes, however, it seems that the problem isn't secrecy, but a large workload. The government received a record number of FOIA requests—more than 800,000—in 2017, according to government figures. If agencies made more data proactively available, it should help them reduce the number of FOIA requests they receive in the future. Indeed, even the Department of Justice's guidance on FOIA says so.
Filing FOIA requests "was much easier than I thought," staff writer Kate Wheeling writes, "and everybody should be FOIAing everybody all the time because then agencies would just put the info online because it's less work."
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