FOIA is there when you really need access

Have you or anyone you know ever submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA – pronounced “foy-ya”) request? Have you wondered what the journalists mean when the report with pride that they pried some tidbit of information out of the federal government by exercising their FOIA rights.

Well known to investigative journalists, attorneys of some persuasion and citizens who know and exercise their information rights, FOIA is the bulwark of the tools at the ready for any individual or organization that wants to know more by and about the federal government.

FOIA affirms with certainty that the burden is on the government, not the public, to justify the reason for any information to be withheld from the public; the underlying assumption of FOIA is a presumption of openness. The law, enforceable in federal court, requires that agencies of the government must disclose information unless that information is specifically withheld from disclosure under one of nine very specific exemptions to the law.

The problem is that interest in probing the power and procedures of FOIA is an acquired taste.  Though prime users of the tool are most often well compensated for their time mere citizens should reflect that the payoff for a FOIA quest is the potential of reliable information to solve a problem whether the issue at hand is an individual’s right to citizenship or an inventor’s patent or the location of a hazardous waste site in the community.

In real life, FOIA is the tool of last resort.  The vast network of government distribution systems, including individual agencies and depository libraries supported by public, academic and institutional libraries, meet most users’ needs Federal agency websites and other distribution systems, answer the majority of queries that individuals will ever encounter.

Recently word has come of a tool that promises to be a boon to information seekers floundering in the depths of the Capital information pool.  The National Archives has just produced  an online directory of the records managers in each federal agency whose responsibility it is to respond to requests for information by or about the agency.  The guide lists the name, email and phone number of a specific person, along with a date that the information was collected.  It’s organized alphabetically by agency with sub-agencies aggregated under the executive, legislative or jjudicial super-agency or independent agency.

Though I have not had a chance to use the guide, I trust that it works.  Even more, it bolsters my hope that the federal agencies, in particular National Archives, is taking seriously the commitment to open government.

FOIA sets out the principle of openness.  As a tool, it’s like using a bazooka to kill a fly.  FOIA is for the stuff that’s elusive, shared with greater reluctance on the part of the producing agency, or so specific you need to talk to an experienced pro who knows the agency and can match query with appropriate response.  FOIA is the sort of tool you reach for when all else fails – like a plumbing wrench or a kitchen tool used infrequently but absolutely essential when the occasion arises.

If information is power and if a democracy depends on an informed public, FOIA provides the solid base for the public and those who serve the public to create an open government and an informed public.  The ongoing challenge is to assure that 1) the law is monitored and enforced, and 2) that ubiquitous information and communication technology facilitates rather than impedes the free flow of information by and about the federal government.

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