Today we present an interview with James Stocker, Assistant Professor of International Affairs and Program Chair at Trinity Washington University and a member of the 2020-2022 FOIA Advisory Committee. This is part of a series of posts on the Committee, whose members are FOIA experts from inside and outside of government and who are appointed by the Archivist of the United States.
Why did you seek to serve on the FOIA Advisory Committee?
As a historian of U.S. foreign relations, much of my research involves interpreting documents created by the government. Having access to those documents is crucial to my work and that of my historian colleagues, as well as to the public’s understanding of government operations. My research in many U.S. government archive facilities has given me a deep appreciation for the importance of government transparency. Serving on the FOIA Advisory Committee allows me to advocate for this important goal.
What do you hope to accomplish?
In general, my goal is to help ensure that the FOIA is doing what it is meant to do – enhancing government transparency effectively and efficiently. This is my second term on the FOIA Advisory Committee. In the first term, I helped to push for general reforms to the administration of FOIA, including a recommendation that FOIA requests for information about the requester – so-called “first-person FOIA requests,” a term that scholar Margaret Kwoka has drawn attention to – be reclassified as non-FOIA requests. For this second term, I am co-chairing the Subcommittee on Classification, which looks at how the FOIA interacts with national security information.
What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?
A tough question! FOIA faces many challenges. One that often doesn’t get addressed is that of assessment. We too often try to assess the FOIA in quantitative terms – how many requests were fulfilled, how many pages of documents released, how much money spent, etc. This is not a good way to assess any public policy. A better question is what is actually being accomplished? How much transparency is the FOIA achieving? Can journalists, scholars, and others get the information they need to do their work? Can the public get access to the information that it needs to hold the government accountable? This is more difficult to assess.
Tell us about your favorite FOIA moment.
My favorite FOIA moment is one of my first – during my PhD dissertation research, I sent a FOIA request to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and received a (to me) jaw-dropping letter indicating that the response was expected to take more than eight years! Since then, I have gained a greater understanding of why responses sometimes take so long, even if I am not thrilled about them. Serving on this committee has given me greater insight into the human side of FOIA, reminding me that many talented professionals share a genuine commitment to transparency and openness in government.