Getting to Know the FOIA Advisory Committee: Gbemende Johnson

Today we present an interview with Gbemende Johnson, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia and a member of the 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 who are appointed by the Archivist of the United States.

What prompted you to seek appointment to the FOIA Advisory Committee?

I have had the privilege of researching issues of transparency and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) since I was a graduate student. However, my recent work as a “pracademic” fellow with the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) provided me with the ability to directly impact public interaction with the FOIA.  I saw the opportunity to serve on the FOIA Advisory Committee as a way to continue this direct engagement with the FOIA in a different capacity. Specifically, serving on the FOIA Advisory Committee provides an opportunity to apply my experience as a FOIA user and researcher in a way that could aid the implementation of the FOIA and public/researcher engagement with the executive branch.  

What do you hope to accomplish from this experience? 

Working with the esteemed members of the Committee, I hope that we develop creative, effective, and practical recommendations that enhance and improve the FOIA experience for all stakeholders.

What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?

Resources, resources, and resources.  As requests for government records increase in volume and complexity, FOIA must have the staff, technology, and collateral capacity to fulfill the directives of statutory mandates.  While agencies have internal autonomy over the way in which they allocate funding towards FOIA responsibilities, Congress must make it a priority to ensure that FOIA funding is more than adequate to meet the demands of the public, and the needs of FOIA officials who work to process FOIA requests. 

Tell us about your favorite FOIA experience. 

My favorite FOIA experience involves a request that I made for multiple annual reports  from a particular agency. There was an online link that should have allowed me access to the reports but the link wasn’t working so I submitted a FOIA request seeking the records. After submitting my request, I exchanged a number of emails with a FOIA official who worked to ensure that I received access to the requested reports. During our exchange I asked if I should email another office to get access to reports (the office that sponsored the online link). But the official told me not to worry about that and that she would see what she could do to ensure that I could get access to the reports. Technically the reports were housed with a separate office, not hers, and she could have sent me elsewhere. However, within a week or so she emailed all of the reports that I was seeking. 

It was a brief interaction involving what would be considered a simple request, but I appreciated her insistence on helping me get the information I needed.