Category Archives: Freedom of Information

Essential or extravagant: Considering FOIA budgets, costs and fees

Source: A.J. Wagner, Government Information Quarterly, In Press – Corrected Proof, Available online 14 September 2017
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
This study seeks to square the competing arguments of the Freedom of Information Act’s necessity versus its financial burden by analyzing more than 500 FOIA annual reports, representing 93% of all cabinet- level data from 1975 until 2015.

FOIA expenses account for less than 1% of agency budgets, and while costs per request have increased over time, the small proportion of FOIA expense versus general budgets has remained stagnant.

Highlights
• A database of cabinet-level FOIA annual reports from 1975 to 2015 is analyzed.
• There are no federal requirements or close scrutiny of FOIA funding and budgets.
• Fees collected have accounted for only 3.2% of FOIA costs.
• Departments have accrued $6.3 billion in FOIA costs since 1975, or $386 per request.
• FOIA costs have amounted to 0.011% of general departmental budgets.

Predict Your FOIA Request Success

Source: data.world, 2017

Does your FOIA have a shot? This model is trained on 9,000+ FOIA requests tracked by MuckRock.

Predictions made using a K nearest neighbors classification algorithm with a test classification accuracy rate of 80%. Factors include word count, average sentence length, specificity (presence of nouns), references to fees, references to FOIA, presence of hyperlinks, presence of email addresses, and success rate of agency.
Related:
What makes a good FOIA request? We studied 33,000 to find out.
Source: Nicolas Dias, Rashida Kamal, and Laurent Bastien, January 30, 2017

Every journalist has ideas about what makes a good public records request. But surprisingly few people have actually tried to systematically analyze how requests can be written to improve their chances of success. To fill this vacuum, we analyzed more than 33,000 Freedom of Information Act requests and identified a few characteristics that were typical of those that were fulfilled…..

Governing in the Shadows: Rating the Online Financial Transparency of Special District Governments

Source: Michelle Surka, Rachel Cross, U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group, Following the Money 2017: Special Districts, April 2017

From the summary:
Citizens’ ability to understand how their tax dollars are spent is fundamental to democracy. Budget and spending transparency holds government officials accountable for making smart decisions, checks corruption, and provides citizens an opportunity to affect how government dollars are spent.
“Special districts” are a type of government agency that exist outside of traditional forms of general purpose local or state governments, and serve key governmental functions such as public transit or housing. However, special districts are poorly understood by the public and often do business without adhering to modern standards of government budget or spending transparency. The lack of transparency and accountability of many special districts has caused concern among some state agencies and government watchdogs, as it can contribute to an atmosphere conducive to lowered efficiency and potential misconduct.

A review of 79 special districts’ online financial transparency shows that while a few districts are meeting the goals of “Transparency 2.0” – a standard of comprehensive, one-stop, oneclick budget accountability and accessibility – the vast majority do little to inform citizens about how they spend money. To empower and engage the public, enable citizen oversight of all branches of government, and improve the efficiency with which they operate, special districts, along with local and state governments, should expand the amount and improve the quality of spending data that are made available to the public online….
Related:
Press release

Most Special Districts Lag in the Transparency Department
Source: Mike Maciag, Governing, April 28, 2017

Special districts are all over, and according to one of the first nationwide reports on them, most aren’t revealing even basic information online about how they’re spending public money. …

The failure of an early episode in the open government data movement: A historical case study

Source: Xiaohua Zhu, Government Information Quarterly, In Press – Corrected Proof, Available online 6 April 2017
(subscription required)

From the abstract:
The open government data (OGD) movement that focuses on government transparency and data reuse did not appear out of thin air. Some early episodes of this social movement can be traced to the early 1990s.This paper presents a historical case study of such an OGD episode, a campaign targeted at a government database called JURIS, initiated by OGD advocates in the early 1990s. JURIS was a legal information retrieval system created by the Department of Justice and used by government employees, which contained federal court decisions (or case law), among many other primary legal materials. Public interest groups and small publishers intended to open up the database for public access and data reuse, but their effort failed and eventually led to the shutdown of the JURIS system. This paper provides a detailed account of the history, analyzes the reasons of the failure, and discusses outcomes of the campaign. Drawing from social movement theories, especially the political opportunity structure, the paper illustrates the complexity of the social political environment surrounding the OGD movement, especially with regard to an important type of government data, primary legal information, in the United States.

Highlights
• JURIS campaign was an early episode of open government data social movement.
• Study of a failed case reveals the complexity of open government data movement.
• Many factors shaped access rights to primary legal information in digital format.
• The case reveals the conflicts between public access and information privatization.
• The OGD movement needs favorable political culture and strong allies to succeed.

Freedom of Information Beyond the Freedom of Information Act

Source: David Pozen, Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 14-541, February 1, 2017

From the abstract:
The U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows any person to request any agency record for any reason. This model has been copied worldwide and celebrated as a structural necessity in a real democracy. Yet in practice, this Article argues, FOIA embodies a distinctively “reactionary” form of transparency. FOIA is reactionary in a straightforward, procedural sense in that disclosure responds to ad hoc demands for information. Partly because of this very feature, FOIA can also be seen as reactionary in a more substantive, political sense insofar as it saps regulatory capacity; distributes government goods in an inegalitarian fashion; and contributes to a culture of adversarialism and derision surrounding the domestic policy bureaucracy while insulating the far more secretive national security agencies, as well as corporations, from similar scrutiny. If this Article’s core claims are correct to any significant degree, then open government advocates in general, and progressives in particular, ought to rethink their relationship to this landmark law.

FOIA Wiki

Source: Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, The FOIA Project at TRAC, MuckRock, FOIA Mapper, 2016

This free and collaborative resource on the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552, is provided by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, with contributions from The FOIA Project at TRAC, MuckRock, FOIA Mapper, and users like you.

→ Need information about a particular department, agency, or component? Visit the Agencies Landing Page for FOIA regulations, statistics, record systems, lawsuits, and practical tips.

→ Have a question about FOIA, want to discuss something an agency is doing, or have some news? Visit the FOIA Wiki Forum.

→ Want to get involved in the development of this the FOIA Wiki? See the help wanted category to find pages that need contributions. Be sure to read the FOIA Wiki Policies before making changes or additions.

Freedom of Information Act: Litigation Costs For Justice and Agencies Could Not Be Fully Determined

Source: U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), GAO-16-667, September 8, 2016

From the summary:
Of the 1,672 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits with a decision rendered between 2009 and 2014, GAO identified 112 lawsuits where the plaintiff substantially prevailed. Litigation-related costs for these 112 lawsuits could not be fully determined. Costs associated with such lawsuits are comprised of (1) the Department of Justice’s (Justice) costs for defending the lawsuits on behalf of agencies, (2) the agencies’ respective costs for the lawsuits, and (3) any attorneys’ fees and costs as assessed by a court or based on settlement agreements awarded to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Of the 112 lawsuits, Justice provided information on its costs for defending 8 lawsuits totaling about $97,000. Justice officials stated that the department does not specifically track costs for lawsuits in which the plaintiffs substantially prevailed and that its attorneys are not required to track such costs for individual lawsuits. Regarding individual agencies, 17 of the 28 in GAO’s study had a system or process in place that enabled them to provide cost information on 57 of the 112 selected lawsuits. According to this information, the agencies incurred approximately $1.3 million in FOIA litigation-related costs for these lawsuits during fiscal years 2009 through 2014. The remaining agencies did not have a mechanism in place to track FOIA litigation-related costs where the plaintiffs prevailed. These agencies said costs were not tracked because Justice’s guidance does not require agencies to collect and report costs related to specific lawsuits, or if the plaintiff prevailed as a result of a lawsuit.

As required by FOIA, Justice has reported annually on the results of all lawsuits, including any awards of attorneys’ fees and costs to the plaintiffs. However, for 11 of the 112 selected lawsuits, Justice reported an amount of attorneys’ fees and costs awarded that differed from the amounts reported by the defending agencies. According to Justice, the differences in the award of attorney’s fees and costs were due to the appeals process and settlement agreements between the respective agencies and the plaintiffs.

Although requiring Justice and agencies to report actual cost information could lead to better transparency regarding federal operations, costs would be associated with such reporting. Considering these costs, as well as potential benefits, could help Congress in determining whether such a requirement would be cost-effective for enhancing oversight of FOIA litigation-related operations.

Illinois AG Rules That Public Employees’ Personal Emails Are Public Records – Messages Pertaining to Public Business in Personal Email Accounts Subject to Disclosure Under FOIA

Source: Mark E. Burkland, Benjamin Schuster, JD Supra, August 16, 2016

HIGHLIGHTS:
• The Illinois Attorney General (AG) issued a binding opinion under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that email messages sent or received through public employees’ personal email accounts may be public records subject to disclosure under FOIA if the messages pertain to public business.
• The opinion was issued as a result of CNN’s FOIA request seeking all email messages from Chicago Police Department email accounts and personal email accounts related to Laquan McDonald, who was fatally shot by a police officer in October 2014.
• In light of the AG’s opinion, public bodies should expect to receive FOIA requests that specifically request email and text messages sent or received through personal email accounts and on personal devices. Accordingly, each public body should establish clear guidelines requiring employees to turn over, if requested by the public body, personal email and text messages that pertain to public business….