Why FOIA Is Broken, From a Government Worker's Perspective

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, Chris Haugh and I wrote a story about historic changes to the Freedom of Information Act, which makes government records accessible to the public—albeit imperfectly. We spoke to a number of folks who frequently make records requests, including an author who waited almost 20 years for one set of documents. They told some frustrating stories, to say the least.

But a number of our readers have experienced the other side of the exchange: the agencies that must respond to FOIA request. One reader, via the comments section, related the plight of the beleaguered open-records officer:

I’ve worked for state agencies, where nothing is more dreaded than FOIA duty. No one in the agency has the time to comply or has the slightest interest in doing so, because it is a tedious and unrewarding interruption to one’s “real” work and a terrible time suck. Everyone regards the FOIA people as an enemy, and the FOIA people are bored, unhappy, and demoralized. They’d also rather be doing “real” work for which they might actually be recognized and rewarded.

Elaborating over email, the reader explained he worked for a district attorney’s office in New York City, which had one dedicated employee for open records requests, and a prominent Massachusetts commission, which had no one. He expects federal agencies are similarly understaffed but probably receive exponentially more requests. (If you field requests at a federal agency and would like to chime in, please let us know.) “At the federal level, can you imagine how many requests are received by NASA, DOD, FAA, etc. re UFOs?” he asked.

Obviously the law you’re discussing applies to federal FOIA only, and the federal agencies are larger. I don’t know what institutional arrangements they make. The principal point is that, even if there is a dedicated FOIA unit, they rely upon other divisions and departments of the agency, and its local and regional offices, to actually provide the documents sought at their request. These folks have no incentive to cooperate, and every minute they spend on tracking down documents is time taken from their actual jobs. And research is fun if you’re the researcher—not so much if you have no idea what the point of the request is and don’t actually care.

As another reader put it, fielding open-records requests is “basically like having your taxes audited every day.” It’s certainly an administrative burden for departments who have other things to do. The simplest solution would be to hire more FOIA officers, and to spend more money on record-keeping. Alas, the new reforms come with no new funding.

Update from a reader who responds to the callout for a federal worker’s view:

Your note is spot on. I handle FOIA requests for a DOD agency and I’m also familiar with process at the Department of Energy. In both cases, the FOIA offices are very small, fewer than ten people. In my agency, it took a lawsuit to get more people to staff the office. For a lot of agencies, FOIA requests are handled as additional duties and not given high priority.

The main problem in a lot of cases is just finding the requested documents. As Steve Benen often points out, Records Management is a huge problem, with no relief in sight.

I had to smile at the requirement in the new changes to the law about a single web portal for all requests. We couldn’t even do that for DOD!  It will be interesting to see how this gets implemented, since, once again, there is no funding for all these great improvements.

Thank you for addressing this.