Government Appoints Insider With Terrible FOIA Track Record To Head Up Gov't Info Services At National Archives
from the you-can't-make-something-work-better-just-by-rearranging-broken-parts dept
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is looking to revamp its FOIA system, which is not only suffering from the over-redaction common to intelligence/security agencies, but also from a massive backlog of unfulfilled requests. As befits an agency that often can't tell the First Amendment from a terrorist threat, the effort is going badly.
First off, the DHS recently debuted its mostly-nonfunctioning FOIA request app, which would probably have added to its backlog if only it worked. But it's a move in the right direction -- greater transparency -- even if in practice, it's pretty much the equivalent of tripping over something and calling it "forward progress."
The DHS has similar problems with its internal technology.
A November 2014 report from the General Accountability Office found the DHS duplicates efforts when processing FOIA requests. Holzer acknowledged the issue in a memorandum that said different departments of the DHS are using FOIA software that fails to meet federal standards.The Holzer quoted here is the current senior director of FOIA operations at the DHS, James Holzer. Under his direction, the DHS has moved ever so slightly towards the "responsive agency" ideal. But every small step forward continues to be undermined by the agency's desire to keep its documents to itself. It currently has the greatest number of partially-filled requests of any government agency.
Part of this is due to the fact that the agency receives more requests than any other agency. And part of this is due to the government talking big about transparency, but refusing to put federal money where its mouth is.
According to the Department of Justice's annual report, there were 3,838 full-time FOIA staff members in 2014. In 2011, there were 4,396.But part of this is due to Holzer himself, who has erected fee barriers to further distance requesters from the documents they seek.
Holzer wrote a 2014 letter that MuckRock, which provides a FOIA request and hosting service, was "not a member of the news media," though it featured journalists like Michael Morisy and Shawn Musgrave publishing journalism on matters of public interest, like domestic drone programs.According to Holzer, MuckRock is a "commercial" entity -- apparently basing his determination solely on the fact that MuckRock has a website and internet users visit it to view FOIA documents.
Making documents available on MuckRock's website, even at no charge, drives traffic to the website and furthers its commercial purposes.On top of all this, the DHS has also been found to censor FOIA responses for purely political reasons and has occasionally handled its massive backlog of unanswered requests by tossing thousands of them into file boxes and forgetting about them.
So, given this background, it's a little disheartening to hear that Holzer is being promoted to a position that will give him even more control over the government's end of the FOIA process.
This week, Archivist of the United States David Ferriero announced that James Holzer would be the new director of the Office of Government Information Services at the U.S. National Archives, beginning on August 9.Well, "commitment to transparency" means only as much as the administration itself is committed to transparency -- which isn't much. The promotion of an insider like Holzer to this post means FOIA requesters should expect little more than the status quo for the duration of his tenure. The government isn't imaginative enough to explore the areas outside its confines while filling an open FOIA oversight slot. This is the sort of job that shouldn't be left to a company man, as HuffPo's Alexander Howard points out.
"Dr. Holzer’s experience administering FOIA and his demonstrated commitment to transparency will benefit OGIS, the National Archives, and the American public," said Ferriero.
It's hard to find a positive interpretation of the fact that a FOIA officer from DHS has been appointed ombudsman. FOIA requesters will need a strong advocate to arbitrate disputes and push for their requests to be addressed. A candidate from the nonprofit, academic or media worlds would be much more likely to do that than a DHS staffer.The FOIA program will never approach the ideals of the law as long as it continues to be overseen only by government officials. Their interests are at odds with the public's in most cases. It's yet another area of government that would be better served by an advocate for the public, drawn from the public.