When Government Transparency Falters, FOIA Shines Light on Major News

Journalists and non-journalists alike can use the law to see how government functions at the deepest levels.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Obamacare (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Mar 20, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Matt Rumsey is a policy associate at the Sunlight Foundation, working primarily on Congressional and Federal policy.

In the days following the botched rollout of the Obamacare website, the rush to lay political blame was palpable in Washington. Responding to angry constituents, Congress began making formal inquiries into how far up the chain of command knowledge of the problems went, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius moved to shield the president from the blowback on his hallmark piece of legislation, claiming he wasn't aware of the site's flaws.

It wasn't known that they'd been in close contact until reporters for The Hill learned, through a Freedom of Information Act request, that Sebelius had made repeated visits to the White House, meeting with President Barack Obama 18 times, and with many senior staffers too. What they discussed remains unclear, but regarding the Affordable Care Act, it was undeniable that the lines of communication were open at the most senior levels of government.

Transparency isn't always the government's first instinct, which is why the Freedom of Information Act, known as FOIA, is crucial to our democracy. Originally instituted in 1966, the federal law guarantees public access to a variety of government documents, subject to a number of exemptions. The FOIA is one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of any journalist, but you don't have to be a journalist to make good use of the law.

Documents obtained through the FOIA can help anyone digging into the inner workings of government by providing important details that can bolster arguments, or, in the case of the article published last month in The Hill, lay the foundation for entire stories.

The Hill sought documents relating to Sebelius' schedule ahead of the controversial rollout of HealthCare.gov. The authors were successful in obtaining the information, and it dictated the entire content of their story. It is not an overstatement to say that without the FOIA, the story would never have been written.

FOIA is important to everyone, not just because everyone can use it but because the journalists who use it most visibly are trying to obtain information that they make available to you—the public. In the graphic alongside this piece, inspired by the Sunlight Foundation's "News Without Transparency" series, we've attempted to illustrate the significance of FOIA by blacking out the portions of the story that could not have been written were it not for the law.

For FOIA users, getting exactly what they are looking for represents the best-case scenario. Often agencies will respond to FOIA requests with heavily redacted documents, citing one of the exemptions. In other cases, they will drag their feet, only releasing documents long after the original request was made or after legal proceedings.

Just making an FOIA request isn't always a walk in the park. Each federal agency has its own process (we won't even get started on how the various states handle their Freedom of Information laws), and it is often difficult to know if the documents that are being sought have been requested before or are already public.

The good news: Helping newbies (and even some experienced FOIA hands) make and manage requests has spawned cottage industries, helmed by legally savvy and civic-minded practitioners. Some of the examples we know about include MuckRock (a Sunlight grantee), FOIA Machine, as well as a just-launched effort by prolific FOIA filer Lisette Garcia, whom you can follow @FOIAFactor.

The Obama administration supports an improved FOIA; the Republican-controlled House of Representatives earlier this year overwhelmingly passed a bill, and the Senate this month held a hearing on the issue. Civil society organizations have floated recommendations for reform in the past several months. Freedom of information is not generally considered a partisan issue. Momentum appears to be building. Could this be the year for real change?

This article was created in association with the social action campaign for The Unknown Known, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media.