Today we present an interview with Michael Morisy, founder and chief executive of the non-profit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) tool and news site MuckRock and a member of the FOIA Advisory Committee. MuckRock has worked with more than 10,000 requesters to file, track and share their Federal FOIA and other public records requests. 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?
When I first got into FOIA, my initial focus was what a powerful tool it is for journalists, researchers, and ordinary citizens to keep government accountable and really ensure we have an informed democracy. If you look at the journalism that leads to major changes and reforms, so much of it is driven by records received through the Freedom of Information Act. But over the last nine years, I’ve really come to see how critical it is that folks on the other side of the fence, in government, are given the tools they need to succeed. I’ve gotten to know so many amazing people — FOIA officers and others in government — who work incredibly diligently and creatively to keep our government open and transparent. I want to do what I can to make sure that they’re able to succeed in that mission.
What do you hope to accomplish?
I was drawn by the [Vision Subcommittee] mission of laying out a vision for FOIA that looks out a little bit in the longer term: In 10, 15 years, what should FOIA look like? So much of the process today is very paper-driven, very manual, and while it’s improving, I think the tools many agencies are given are still decades behind where they should be. So I think it’s useful to imagine how a young person today, if they were building transparency laws from scratch, what should it look like and how should it work? And then think through a plan to build towards that.
What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?
I really worry that the expectations gap — of what FOIA can and should be versus what it is today — is widening, which leads to a lot of frustration on both sides. Requesters expect things to be getting faster than ever, more electronic and responsive, and we have not given agencies anywhere near the technology, training, or staffing to deliver on that, so they’re just kind of swamped trying to make 1970s processes meet 2019 expectations. I think groups on both sides often have the best intentions but we’re really not moving nearly quickly enough towards equipping agencies with the authority, staffing, technology, and training they need to bring FOIA into the future our public deserves.
Tell us about your favorite FOIA moment.
I think FOIA really shines as a way to open up really critical issues, but some of my favorite moments are seeing what odd things can come out due to FOIA requests. MuckRock helped file a request for CIA cafeteria complaints that people just found fascinating and hilarious; spies are just like us, getting annoyed by vending machines that switch the Pepsi and Diet Pepsi. Or the time we received a board game under the Freedom of Information Act and then someone actually went and had it printed and produced. So you never know what will come out, but I think those kinds of things are an amazing way to get people to see government in a new light and get excited about FOIA.