Once primarily the domain of journalists, the issues of freedom of information and access to government records have in recent years grown in the greater public consciousness. These days, it's hard to find a major government-related news story that isn't underpinned at least in part by details gathered from public records. Recent notable flash points include the Snowden disclosures, the Clinton email investigation, and, now, daily revelations about the affairs and inner-workings of the new presidential administration.
One of the groups pushing hard for government accountability in these tenuous times is MuckRock, the US-based organization that assists in filing records requests through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and other sunshine laws -- and makes materials gathered from those efforts available to the public. MuckRock has also partnered with other like-minded initiatives to successfully sue for access to particularly well-guarded government documents. Its lawsuit against the CIA resulted in the release of the CREST database, a trove of 13 million intelligence documents dating to the beginning of the Cold War.
On the eve of MuckRock's 7th birthday, we interviewed the organization's co-founder Michael Morisy about the challenges faced by those demanding more government transparency and, on the other side, the government organizations whose obligation it is to respond to an ever-growing body of requests. This is part 1 of 2.
Logikcull: MuckRock had its seventh birthday this weekend. What big learnings have you had over the years?
Michael Morisy: I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned is what a broad collage of individuals and organizations rely on accurate and accessible government data. There are a number of different ways transparency fuels good government, civic participation and commerce in a lot of areas.
I think when I came into this, like a lot of reporters, I thought public records and the Freedom of Information Act were mostly reporters’ tools, but there are so many other groups who benefit from this amazing right we have.
One of the other things that has been a tough learning is just how complicated the challenges are for government agencies to make that right a reality. One thing that people really underestimate is how modern their technology stack and internal communications systems are.
(Outdated) systems create a lot of friction and frustration when people try and use public records or use the Freedom of Information Act. In their personal and work lives, people are used to being able to search across all their documents instantly or have a really great intranet or chat application that instantly connects you with the information that you’re looking for. So many agencies are decades, decades behind where the private sector is when it comes to having information that's properly managed and accessible.
"So many agencies are decades, decades behind where the private sector is when it comes to having information that’s properly managed and accessible."
Recently it was in the news that the FBI is getting rid of their FOIA email address and instead is saying, “If you want to get a request to us you can use this clunky FOIA portal or you can use a fax machine.” That got a lot of people’s attention, but we’ve been using fax to get requests to agencies for seven years now, and one of the things that I thought when we started was that eventually all agencies would get with the program and start using email. I think it has improved, but it has not improved a whole lot, and with some agencies it has actually gotten worse.
Logikcull: I was reading about that FBI thing and I came across a post on MuckRock talking about how, several years ago, the Department of Defense was basically using a fax machine -- like one single fax machine -- and it broke. So, basically they had no way to field these requests for several months.
But I guess the thing it made me think is that there might be some kind of self-preservation instinct at issue. It’s like, if these agencies do modernize, and they do come up to speed on the ability to be able to process these requests faster, potentially they will be expected to field a lot more requests a lot faster. Do you think there’s anything like this happening?
Morisy: Yes. I actually very briefly worked in government years ago and I understand there’s a lot of “small c” conservatism when it comes to technology. I think the thing you fear when you’re in government is upgrading in a way that wipes out critical data, or making a transfer [in technology] that goes wrong. Sometimes when agencies do try very big, ambitious IT projects, they end up spending millions or tens of millions of dollars with nothing to show for it. And so, I think people see those examples and get really worried about the downside and have a really hard time kind of going after that upside. So, I do think that the conservatism is understandable when it comes to technological upgrades, but I think at this point, the costs have just become too astronomical in terms of public trust and satisfaction, and in terms of the dollar amount spent on using and upgrading and maintaining legacy hardware that in many cases is years or decades beyond its support contract. We're spending way too much money on lazy approaches that really should've gone by the wayside 5 years ago.
"We’re spending way too much money on lazy approaches that really should’ve gone by the wayside 5 years ago."
Logikcull: How did you get the idea for MuckRock? Were you working on a particular story where you said, “Gosh, this information is really hard to get. We need something that will help speed this up?”
Morisy: Yes, and I’ve always been interested in trying to think through what can make journalism more efficient and more effective and more transparent. And so, my co-founder [Mitchell Kotler] and I went back through decades of really great investigative journalism and really great accountability journalism and we looked to try and figure out what was the kind of journalism that had most of the impact. And these stories had a number of things in common: they had some great interviews, they had great writing, they had a great narrative. But, again and again they were based on government records.
So we thought, it’s pretty tough to scale great writing. It’s really tough to build a computer program that will make a great interview. But what we can do is make the public records process more accessible and more collaborative and hopefully that will have an impact, and we think it has.
Logikcull: In addition to the technology shortcomings you mentioned, what other major challenges do you think government organizations face in being able to efficiently and in an open manner respond to requests for this kind of information?
Morisy: I think it’s a tough balance between too much process and too little process. A lot of times, we’ve run into problems with agencies that just don’t have a public records process, or that have very little thought going into their document management process. And that means, when a request comes in, they kind of panic or it bounces around in weird ways. Or, even when it has good intentions, an agency will sort of say, “Okay, I need to get to this,” but then 30 other things come up.
"Some agencies just don't have a public records process and that means, when a request comes in, they kind of panic or it bounces around in weird ways."
I think that’s the real problem. We recommend that every agency should have at the very minimum some kind of public records request log and they should have some sort of basic procedures on managing those requests.
On the other side, we see some agencies that have too much process, where everything needs to go and get read through by a lawyer, where agency personnel are discouraged from – if something is clearly releasable – just giving it to a person.
You know, if you can handle something in a few seconds, I think sometimes there’s a great benefit to saying, “We’ll treat this as an informal request. Here’s the document you asked for.” It would save everybody a lot of time and money.
We see some places where everything goes through very strict channels and that leads to miscommunication. That is usually what leads to these stories – and we’ve run a few of them – where an agency will say, “This request is going to cost tens of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars” for something that strikes the public as a fairly basic ask.
So we think it’s important to have some process, it’s important to have procedures and training, but it’s also important to have common sense and give people flexibility to negotiate something that will meet the needs of the requester but also serves as a good steward of the tax dollar.
Part 2 of this interview will be posted later this week. To learn more about FOIA laws and the process of requesting public records, check out our FOIA infographic here.