As I write this, Congress and the White House are negotiating a budget to keep the government running for the rest of Fiscal Year 2011. Once that negotiation is hopefully concluded, a new budget negotiation for Fiscal Year 2012 will begin.
One thing I am pretty sure of is that the words “Freedom of Information Act” will not be discussed during these negotiations. And why should it as funding for agency FOIA Operations has been carved out of non-specific agency operations since the inception of the FOIA. What this largely means is that already under financed FOIA Operations can expect further reductions in their budgets in the future.
I believe reducing FOIA Operations any further is the wrong way to go if the objectives of increasing government transparency are to be pursued. The actual process of searching for records in response to FOIA requests and processing those requests requires human interaction – in other words, while the documents themselves can be digitized, a person will always be required to search for and process responsive records. This, of course costs actual money. And while the “tea party” may think all spending for the federal government is a waste, I would think that many of them also want to know what the government is up to – which is the exact reason there is a FOIA in the first place. And that, of course, costs money.
So, the question is what is the most effective way to fund FOIA Operations? I have long advocated a direct amount for each agency’s FOIA Operations by Congress. I have been told this isn’t a wise idea because it could then be cut at a later date. However, it seems to me that an agency that has its FOIA Operations fully funded in year one would have a baseline for future years – if backlogs occur, it can seek increases; if it finds it has no backlog, it could propose reductions.
I also think the question of contractors should be examined. Many agencies now use contractors to process, at least a portion, of their FOIA workload. Studies should be done to see if this is truly cost effective. If it is not, the work should go back in house. And contractors may be a good idea in some cases – such as where agencies use them to get rid of their backlogs. Once the backlog is gone, the contractors can then be removed from the FOIA Office.
While deficit reduction is a worthwhile goal, it should not be done on the backs of the government FOIA community. They were not responsible for the deficit and fulfill one of the most important jobs in the government. Hopefully, FOIA Operating budgets will be spared the deficit knife.