Imagine running a business and one morning a court orders a complete review of every customer served that coincides with specific criteria. The order allows two weeks to complete this request. Welcome to FOIA. Freedom of information act requests (FOIA’s) are often cumbersome, disorganized and request huge amounts of information that are often not readily available. People are not sure what they want, but are sure something nefarious is hidden in the depths of a one-hundred-page report submitted to a committee. The FOIA’s don’t often say it, but the request would like the nefarious parts highlighted – “…with circles and arrows on the back of each one” (sorry Arlo). FOIA’s take time, are expensive and often don’t provide any insight into the actually query (which is often unknown, exploratory, or simply vague).
Is there a better way?
Citizens should be allowed, I argue encouraged, access to any public document or discussion, but must be willing to do the work. In order to do the work, access must be granted. There is the rub, access means a willingness to offer information into the internal workings of a particular function. The folks in charge don’t want people meddling in their business; it is Scooby and those darn kids.
A person reads a headline and is upset, they call a local official (or political office) and want all the background information. The request is absurd and will not help the person understand the headline, but it will require hours of work and research. The provided information, in many cases, will not change the person’s mind about the headline or the story. It just created work. As someone who has researched these issues, they are a pain and can be extremely time consuming.
Citizen oversight committees could help citizens understand where to find information and help them articulate the real question (e.g., decipher the headline). They could also serve as a pre-audit assessor. If a citizen seeks information and the data shows anomalies, they could investigate and determine if an audit is needed. These folks would act as a check and balance against elected bureaucracies and provide a network for citizen complaints and inquires. This solution has been discussed in prior posts, but the solution is urgently needed.
As some elected, and appointed, officials have disregarded the law and continue to do things they want, regardless of judicial direction or law, the proliferation of FOIA requests appears on the rise. A school district in Minnesota told a law firm representing parents that it would cost over $900,000 to fulfill its records request. While ridiculous on its face, the number is probably not far off. Time is money and research takes time. If a record is missed or anything left out, collusion, or worse, will be accused. The people lose and the lawyers win again.
Citizens must have access to information, but FOIA’s are not a substitute for involvement. Instead of requesting every document that proves a claim, participate and make sure future claims are unnecessary.
People must get involved.