Tuesday, December 16, 2008

FOIA - The Other Side of the Coin

I don't talk about work very often and I think we can all agree that's for a good reason. There is a reason the verb to be Dooced is now part of the mainstream blogosphere. I think we can also agree that for the most part the Freedom of Information Act or FOIA is also a good thing. The people have a right to know what their Government is up to. But I'd like to speak from the other side for a moment. First let me say that my agency doesn't do any investigations or the like. We don't compile dossiers on malcontents, etc. What we do is buy things. Very expensive things. In an environment of shrinking budgets everyone is looking for an advantage. A leg up on their competition. So enter FOIA. I'm currently assigned to work two FOIA actions since they involve my contracts. Both are clearly fishing requests related to an upcoming competition I will be involved in. The companies making the requests obviously don't know what to ask for or aren't sure what to ask for and therefore ask for everything. While you may say this is just being thorough, I say it's just using the old adage of lets throw enough sh*t against the wall and see what sticks. Most of what they are requesting just flat out doesn't exist. And when you have an effort that lasts a couple of years and you ask for copies of "all correspondence" you're literally looking at hundreds of letters and e-mails. The job of researching, cataloging, making recommendations on what is releasable and what is not and making copies of all this falls to you know who. We are coming up on the end of the year. I'm up to my eyebrows in work that needs to get done and I really don't have time for these fishing expeditions. However, by law, I have too. So far I've spent about 40 hours trying to fulfill these FOIA requests and I'm still not done. Another frustrating part of it is that I don't know who really is requesting the information. Oh sure I have a name of a company, but they are only acting as a front for who is really asking for the information. There are literally dozens of companies here in the Washington area who exist solely to do this sort of thing. It's all rather sleazy. Frankly you have to wonder who really wades through all the stuff we ultimately provide them and of what value it is. Most of what they really want, pricing information and unique/proprietary data isn't releasable anyway. And they do have to pay for my time and I don't come cheap.

On a similar note, on a competition I was involved in earlier this year, the award of which was protested by one of the losing companies, a decision was just issued on Monday - we won and the protest denied. Yes! Chalk one up for the good guys.

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