Today we present an interview with Eira Tansey, founder and manager of Memory Rising, 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?
Three things led me to apply for the FOIA Advisory Committee: my experience as a public sector archivist and records manager, my long-standing service work on behalf of recordkeeping public policy, and my own research interests that have depended on open records laws.
I have been a professional archivist for 15 years, and when I applied for the FOIA Advisory Committee, I was working as the University of Cincinnati’s Digital Archivist/Records Manager. (I recently left to found a consultancy and archival services business.)
I originally learned about the opening through the Society of American Archivists (SAA), which has been a vital part of my professional network since I became an archivist. I previously served as chair of the Records Management Section, and more recently completed a three-year term on SAA’s Committee on Public Policy.
I have a longstanding research interest in open government and public records laws. I have written articles on access to environmental information related to fossil fuel production and workplace safety. In writing this research, I filed public records requests with state departments of natural resources, as well as FOIA requests with the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Archivists have a deep commitment to public service, and when I saw the announcement, it seemed like a great fit for both my skills and my interest in learning more about the realities of FOIA.
What do you hope to accomplish from this experience?
Drawing from both my work as a professional archivist in the public sector, and my own experiences filing FOIA and other public records requests, my dual perspectives serve as an important bridge between agencies and the requester community. I have a long-standing interest in making the often invisible work of recordkeeping more visible, and am gratified to see the Resources Subcommittee taking on some of the challenges around recruiting and retaining the talented staff that are critical to maintaining the effectiveness of FOIA.
I would also like to see librarian and archivist associations take a more proactive role in educating their membership about some of the nation’s landmark records-related laws, such as the Freedom of Information Act. Although non-federal archivists may not be directly impacted by FOIA, the implementation and functionality of recordkeeping laws is of vital importance to our entire profession. So, I also hope to share my experience within my network to encourage more archivists to get excited about public policy.
What is FOIA’s biggest challenge?
Public sector workers of all types and from all industries have been asked for decades to do more and more with less and less. Public sector budgets are regularly targeted for cuts – and even a flat budget is a budget cut when you look at inflation. When increases happen, they are rarely large enough to hire enough staff to keep the agency’s mission operating as smoothly as is needed. We see the breaking points all over – from our schools suffering from teacher shortages, to our parks which face severe maintenance backlogs, to our criminal justice system in which public defenders have unimaginable caseloads.
The challenges that FOIA officers, OGIS, and recordkeeping professionals face are no different: there are not enough resources and too few people to keep up with the vital work that needs to be done. I have filed FOIA requests before that may be initially acknowledged, and yet I never receive a response or update. I generally assume that in these situations, the staff are simply overwhelmed with requests without much help on the way.
Indeed, the FOIA Advisory Committee’s last report highlights the resourcing issue repeatedly in its recommendations across each committee term. The 2018-2020 committee put this resource issue most succinctly in a single paragraph in its final report:
The single most consistent challenge agencies encounter when attempting to properly implement FOIA derives from limited resources. Financial support for FOIA administration has not kept up with increasing demands. As a result, FOIA programs are chronically underfunded and short-staffed, leading to a failure to meet statutory deadlines. For those agencies with significant backlogs of requests the greatest need is for additional funds and staff to handle the large number of requests being received. However, because FOIA is often seen as a lower priority by agency leadership, the work often fails to receive sufficient budget allocations to meet their obligations.
Tell us about your favorite FOIA experience.
This is a state-level open records story – not a federal one – but I think it still illustrates how Freedom of Information laws invoke strong opinions in people.
A case that was closely monitored by the archivist profession in recent years is Ahmad v. University of Michigan. This case concerns whether a sealed portion of an archival collection acquired from a private donor, and held at a public institution (the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan), should be subject to Michigan’s open records laws.
As the case was gaining increasing attention, the Association of Research Libraries approached the SAA to sign on to an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief. I was on the SAA’s Committee on Public Policy at the time and ultimately we recommended that SAA refrain from signing on due to our many concerns about the implications of the amicus brief. The case stirred up many strong feelings across the profession since it came down to the complicated questions of freedom of information laws and the tensions faced by public institutions that steward materials from the private sector. Our committee hosted a watch party of one of the hearings in the case, and I was on a panel debate that eventually authored an article about the case. It was a good lesson of how a community can stay in professional dialogue even during sharp disagreements about the boundaries of transparency laws.