11 October 2012

If the United States experience is a precedent, the commercial world sees money in supporting government meet freedom of information obligations.

Bloomberg reports that contracts worth more than US$26.5 million were awarded by agencies last year to prepare responses to information requests.  And that may because the Defence Department figure are not all included

This outsourcing by agencies has grown by about 40% over three years.  Contractors are now building FOIA software, corresponding with requesters, redacting documents and recommending what information should be withheld.

The purpose is obviously to reduce the number of government employees. US Justice Department, which uses only employed staff had 4,400 people dedicated to FOIA requests last year, up 19% from the year before.

The process is complicated because contractors are not themselves  subject to FOIA laws.  A director at the  Sunlight Foundation has commented, “If I was in charge of an agency and wanted to create an unaccountable FOIA process, the first thing I would do is put an outside contractor in charge of it because fewer of our accountability laws apply to them,” “It would just be another layer between me and the public.”

Contractors aren’t allowed to approve agency responses because the work is considered “inherently governmental,” according to federal acquisition rules. On the other hand, they are permitted to “support” the preparation of responses. While contractors may suggest what information will be released, redacted or denied, the agency must make the final decision.

The Bloomberg report is that open-records advocates say hiring contractors to speed up the FOIA process may help federal agencies tackle budget cuts and a growing backlog of requests. But “…it still makes you question the integrity of the system if contractors play such a vital role and merely have their guidance approved…”