Governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to shield public records

One of the first victims of the novel coronavirus after governments began sending as many of their own workers home as possible may turn out to have been transparency. Apparently not counting as an “essential service,” many state governments either discontinued responses to FOIA requests completely or warned people making such requests that long delays could be expected in getting results. A recent Associated Press report found that users of these systems, including members of the media, ran into frustrating blockades of what should be publicly available documents and records just as they were struggling to inform the public as to what’s been going on.

Many state and local governments across the country have suspended public records requirements amid the coronavirus pandemic, denying or delaying access to information that could shed light on key government decisions.

Public officials have said employees either don’t have the time or ability to compile the requested documents or data because they are too busy responding to the outbreak or are working from home instead of at government offices.

The result is that government secrecy has increased at the same time officials are spending billions of dollars fighting the COVID-19 disease and making major decisions affecting the health and economic livelihood of millions of Americans.

One organization has identified more than 100 instances in at least 30 states where regulations requiring responses to record requests have been suspended. The employees processing such requests have either been furloughed or are working from home without access to all the data and sources they would need to respond. Almost all of the rest of the state and local agencies are technically still taking requests, but responses that previously took only a week or two to complete are now estimated to take months.

And it’s not just offices at the state and local level. The federal government has run into the same issues. Back in March, the FBI stopped taking record requests for a while. Last month they began accepting them again on their website, but users are warned to expect unspecified delays. Other federal agencies are issuing similar advisories.

This doesn’t just impact the professional media, either. Plenty of citizens (and citizen journalists) rely on FOIA requests to obtain government information that their elected officials aren’t volunteering and the mainstream media isn’t reporting. This seems to be a particularly dire situation when you consider that literally trillions of dollars are being effectively set on fire in a series of pandemic aid packages. How the decisions as to where the money would be going were reached, who was involved and how the process moved forward should be of great interest to all taxpayers. But getting answers is now becoming progressively harder.

While I sort of hate to say it, I can also see things from the government’s side on this. If you have to limit the number of people coming into the office in order to minimize the spread of the disease, the ones handling matters directly impacting people’s ability to survive are obviously going to be the most essential. The ones digging through paperwork and computer records to answer people’s questions probably aren’t going to be near the top of the list.

And to be fair, these requests involve either paper or electronic records that are still being created and (hopefully) won’t be going anywhere. Sooner or later we’ll return to mostly normal operations and the backlog of requests will still be able to be processed. It’s just going to take more time than many of us would like to see.