Among the litany of calls for more government transparency and the demands for easier access to government information, there is one very interesting fact shared by Alex Howard of the Sunlight Foundation that you probably don't know.
But you should.
Did you know that the overwhelming majority of requests for government information that are submitted through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are from companies who are then turning around and using that same information for their own profit?
The Freedom of Information Act goes back as far as 1946 and requires most federal, state and local agencies to make records promptly available to the public upon request. Its primary goal is government transparency to the public.
But today, you and I, as taxpayers, are bearing the costs for federal agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission, Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Defense Logistics Agency, and the National Institutes of Health to fulfill their legal obligation to provide requested information to private companies who are then free to repackage that same information and sell it at a sweet profit.
Current Barriers to Accessing Government Info
But before we all gather up our pitchforks, we might want to take a breath long enough to understand why these companies are using the FOIA process to get the information they sell and to take a look at some agencies who are addressing the problem.
One of the reasons there is even a profit-making industry built around extracting government information and reselling it is because it has been so difficult to access that information. In fact, a report published by Congressional Research Service details current laws providing access to information as well as improvements needed. The report shows that of the more than 700,000 FOIA requests received by the federal government in 2014, almost 160,000 of those were also backlogged.
And while the reasons for the barriers to information are varied, one of the biggest has been the lack of automation in gathering, storing and sharing the data held within the databases and software used by each agency at almost every level of government.
Thanks to the rapid adoption over the past few years of open data initiatives and deployment of newer technologies by many government agencies, there are a growing number of agencies and cities who making it easier to access government data.
While many agencies now at least offer online request forms, alleviating the time and money expended in filling out and mailing or hand-delivering paper forms, some are already taking it a step further.
Early Solutions: Census Bureau, D.C. and Albuquerque
The U.S. Census Bureau's website features a library of released data published through previous FOIA requests and supports online requests for several federal agencies through their portal, not only making it easier for the public to request the information but to also view published data.
Washington D.C. offers an online reading room where viewers can peruse information and documents already released to the public before making a request for information that may already be available.
Albuquerque, New Mexico recently launched a new public records portal which, in addition to supporting online records requests and a library of published data, also allows anyone to subscribe to automatic updates to the city's most frequently requested reports.
But what makes Albuquerque's public records portal exciting, at least to me, is a new level of transparency.
New Transparency: Who is Making All Those FOIA Requests
Because taxpayers must cover the cost of each FOIA request, Albuquerque's leadership has opted to publish who is making each FOIA request and how much each request is costing the taxpayers.
In fact, the city has already gathered some initial data during beta testing of the software which was developed by NextRequest.
Of the 50-plus monthly requests being processed through the new portal, the city was able to track staff costs of over $100,000 directly related to honoring those FOIA requests.
Albuquerque also determined that many of the recurring requests were submitted by the media, attorneys, law firms, and the general public - all requesting information from mostly two agencies, the City Clerk and the police department.
Saving Money: Frequent FOIA Requests as Open Data
Armed with this actionable data, the city has opted to automatically publish open data feeds of the most commonly requested reports.
The hope is that the number of unique requests will drop as these "frequent flyers" subscribe to receive the automatic updates to data which was previously requested each month.
It will be interesting to track the progress of the city's new FOIA open data and whether it does result in less requests and, thus, reduced costs to fulfill those requests.
If so, I, for one, am hoping other agencies and cities follow suit. There are certainly better things to spend our money on than paying someone to process request after request for the same information, especially when many of those companies are profiting from that process.