According to a recent analysis by the Associated Press, the Obama Administration has set a new record in the number of Freedom of Information Act requests it has denied or censored in the last year. This is especially troubling given that this Administration pledged at its inception to be the most transparent Administration in history.
Individuals who have attempted to obtain information through FOIA can attest to the inefficiency of the process. Government agencies generally take months to respond. When the agency finally issues a response, the information is either heavily redacted or outright withheld. The Project On Government Oversight sees these types of responses to its FOIA requests on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, this practice is not limited to the federal government. During the 2014 Sunshine Week events at the National Press Club, a communications professor from Kennesaw State University presented the results of two surveys of state and local reporters and of reporters covering education. The results of these surveys showed that over 75 percent of these journalists believed that the American public is not given the information it needs.
In the survey of state and local government reporters, more than 80 percent of responding journalists claimed that any interview of a government employee needed to be pre-approved by the Public Information Officer at least some of the time, almost 50 percent stated that multiple requests for interviews were necessary to get a useful response from the Public Information Officer, and 53 percent claimed that the Public Information Officer monitored the interview at least some of the time.
The survey of education reporters showed similar trends. Over 75 percent responded that requests for interviews were forwarded to the school district’s Public Information Officer, over 70 percent claimed that multiple requests for information were required to obtain useful information at least some of the time, and more than 70 percent stated that interviews were monitored by a Public Information Officer at least some of the time.
Reporters at the federal, state, and local level often face situations in which they must either throw themselves on the mercy of the public affairs office or begin the painstakingly long process currently involved with submitting a FOIA request. Jim Dickinson, the editor of FDA Webview, is a perfect example. After months of attempting to obtain information from the FDA, Dickinson filed a petition asking the FDA to change its policy requiring reporters to go through the public affairs office to interview FDA staff. In its denial letter, the FDA advised Dickinson to either continue working with the public affairs office or to file a FOIA request for the information. As discussed above, neither option seems to produce the results the media and the American public deserve.
If the United States truly wants to be a beacon of transparency in government, our federal, state, and local governments should re-examine their current practices concerning the release of information to the public.