FOIA Inc. - Commercial Use of Public Records Requests

March 10, 2016

"At some agencies, commercial—not public—interests dominate the landscape of FOIA requesters." If you have an interest in open and effective democratic government it’s important to understand this fact. Last fall, Margaret Kwoka, a professor at Denver University, published a research paper, “FOIA Inc.,” which reveals the extent to which commercial entities use public records requests at the federal level: at six agencies the percentage of these requests ranged from a massive 96% (the Defence Logistics Agency) to 34% (the Federal Trade Commission). 

From the article abstract: 

"Government transparency is imagined as a public good necessary to a robust democracy. Consistent with that vision, Congress enacted the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to allow oversight and accountability of governmental activities. No actors are more central to the design than journalists, who were not only the prime intended users, but who were intimately involved in crafting the law itself. But this democracy-enhancing ideal is at odds with FOIA’s reality..."

Read the Full Article

At NextRequest, we can say from first-hand experience that commercial public records requests are also a challenge for government agencies at the local level, though they are of a different type and magnitude. Nevertheless, the remedy that Kwoka highlights for federal agencies—affirmative disclosure—could also provide much-needed relief for local governments. Governments can save significant time by moving away from a transactional request-and-respond model and toward implementing processes that would make more information public by default. That’s why with NextRequest we focus not only on providing tools to streamline the response process, but also on providing a platform that enables agencies to share documents, and analytics that offer meaningful insight into where governments can improve their performance or change their approach.

photo: Wes Schaeffer (CC by 2.0)