The following guest post is from Ryan Alfred, co-founder and president of BrightScope, a financial data and analytics company, launched in January 2009. Mr. Alfred spoke at the March 30, 2012 Smart Disclosure summit, hosted by the National Archives and the White House, about his experiences using FOIA. By including his post on the FOIA Ombudsman, OGIS is not endorsing BrightScope or its products.
Back in the summer of 2008, I started a company with my brother Mike Alfred and our colleague Dan Weeks. Though we were few, BrightScope’s mission was big: helping millions of American workers achieve a dignified retirement by bringing more transparency to the corporate 401k plan marketplace. To accomplish this big goal, we needed high-quality data on 401k plans. The Department of Labor (DOL) regulates the retirement plan marketplace, so we thought that visiting DOL was the right place to start.
We booked a flight to Washington, DC, hoping to find the data we needed. Our first stop in DC: the Public Disclosure Room at DOL, where we quickly discovered that the disclosure room computer did not contain the data we were seeking. Fortunately, the DOL staffer working in the disclosure room that day was kind enough to allow us to look over his shoulder at other public files in DOL databases. That olive branch led to a major discovery: a subset of data about 401k plans that was both public and very high value, but that the DOL had not made available on its website or via the disclosure room computer. We printed a few of these reports—audits of retirement plans with more than 100 participants—at 5 cents a page and flew back to San Diego.
When we dug in to the data, we knew we were on to something. This led to our very first FOIA request seeking access to a list of several hundred retirement plans for which we also requested the financial audit statements we found during our visit. We’d read DOL’s FOIA web site and Googled “FOIA,” but none of us had ever submitted a FOIA request. This request would lead to at least 50 additional FOIA requests to the DOL over the next two years. Our requests became larger and larger and at one point, the requests were considered the “most onerous” requests ever placed on the Department.
The data we were requesting never had been requested in bulk and the only way to release it under FOIA was to print out the documents after first reviewing them for sensitive information. This was a time-intensive task and meant that a single DOL staffer would spend countless hours manually reviewing and printing financial statements, a job none of us envied. This created some friction between BrightScope and DOL. We felt our requests for public documents were fair and that our mission was aligned with that of the Department, but we were frustrated by what we perceived to be slow response times and an unwillingness to work together. For example, several times the DOL officially acknowledged our FOIA requests exactly 20 business days after their submission, which is the statutory deadline for a substantive response.
However, over the course of the last three years, the entire relationship has changed. We traveled to DC several times to meet DOL officials in person, communicating our vision and goals and learning as much as we could about the FOIA process. We now view our relationship with DOL as a partnership. DOL has also made some fundamental changes to the way that it provides data. First and foremost, as of last year, the Department makes much of the data available online, eliminating the need for our team to submit FOIA requests. When we want more data, we can simply obtain it ourselves rather than request it through FOIA. Now when we reach out to DOL or vice versa, it’s to provide feedback or to discuss new initiatives, rather than to complain about issues with data released under FOIA or to request additional data.
We’ve also been impressed with how the staff members at all levels of DOL have made themselves accessible to answer our questions and listen to our feedback. We’ve sought to educate ourselves on the constraints DOL faces so that we can find creative ways to obtain the data we seek with a lower burden on Department staff. At times, we’ve also made our data available to DOL staff upon request and sought to educate our teams about how to work most effectively with our counterparts in government. The end result of the last three years of our collaboration with DOL is better transparency of retirement plans and a growing private company of close to 50 employees and millions of dollars in revenue—all with roots in a few thousand DOL documents. The FOIA process was critical to our company’s founding and we owe a debt of gratitude to those in DOL who have shown tremendous patience in working with us over the past three and a half years.