Today we present an interview with Ginger McCall, who recently became the Oregon Public Records Advocate. Ginger is in her third term on the FOIA Advisory Committee. Over the next year, we will interview other members of the Advisory Committee so that you can get to know them better.
Why did you seek to serve on the FOIA Advisory Committee?
I originally applied to serve on the Committee three terms ago because I felt that because this Committee has a mix of stakeholders and a variety of perspectives, it is uniquely positioned to evaluate FOIA processes and practices and make recommendations that can improve the implementation of an important statute. I really enjoy the opportunity to work with people from a mix of different professional backgrounds – folks on the government side, as well as the requester community.
I’ve reapplied now because I feel that FOIA is reaching a crisis point. I’ve seen, as a requester, a federal employee, and now a state employee, the way that public records laws are being strained under the demands of political polarization, hiring freezes, and the proliferation of electronic records. There is an urgency to deal with these problems now to ensure that FOIA continues to be a meaningful tool to promote transparency and oversight.
What do you hope to accomplish?
I’m really hoping that we can come up with some good ideas to improve the basic function of the FOIA. Many FOIA offices are really struggling under the strain of too little funding, lack of leadership support, large numbers of very voluminous requests, and lack of technological solutions. I hope that we can address these issues and craft proposals which will protect FOIA’s future.
What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?
On the agency side, the biggest challenge is a lack of investment by Congress and agency leadership – specifically staffing, funding, and technological investment.
On the requester side, the biggest challenge is the small number of requesters who create disproportionately large and frequent requests without being cognizant of how those requests put on strains on agencies and create delays for other requesters.
Tell us about your favorite FOIA moment.
When I joined the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in 2009, EPIC had just embarked on a campaign against the airport body scanners. As part of that campaign, we submitted a series of FOIA requests to the Department of Homeland Security. The FOIA documents we obtained allowed us to form a diverse coalition, craft a set of public policy proposals, and communicate to the media and the public why the body scanners were both invasive and ineffective. As a result, the agency was forced to change its policy and alter the technology. The scanners that you now see in airports have built-in privacy protections. Those protections are only there because of the FOIA documents EPIC obtained. This is the power of public records: the power to change nationwide policy.