August 31, 2010 Leave a comment
Predact isn’t a word. But it should be.
Here’s my definition:
Pre*dact’ — From reductio (compressing, editing):Redacting information that is not releasable under open government law (such as FOIA) in anticipation of public disclosure (and prior to a request for public release).
(Hey, if Sarah Palin can make up words, we can, too.)
Ideally government employees should remove information that should not be released to the public when that document is being created if the document is subject to FOIA. Or, if that simply is unworkable, agencies should identify types of documents that are likely to become public and redact information that should not be public so they are ready for public release before a request comes in.
For example, an agency has received FOIA requests for similar information, it should as a common practice to excise documents of non-releasable material ahead of time so that when the FOIA request comes in, they can pull the document from the file and hand it over without a lot of fuss. (Or even post the document online.) This will save the requester time and looks good when the agency reports how much time it takes to respond to requests.
Would it be impossible for a reasonably large agency to not just eliminate their backlog, but get ahead of it? The National Archives and Records Administration goes through this kind of process with the reams of documents belonging to the American public that presidents leave behind once they step foot out of the Oval Office. In fact, systemic review can allow the skeleton crews of librarians to cull through the material than going through documents in response to FOIA requests. Experts I’ve spoken with say they can go through material faster if they go through it systematically, rather than pulling paper and electronic records together from different sources in response to a FOIA request. Makes sense.
We can adapt this lesson to documents that are currently subject to FOIA. When the FOIA officer knocks on the government official’s door looking for anything in her hard drive or filing cabinet related to John Doe’s FOIA request, essentially it is too late to review the documents to see if anything in them should be withheld. That review ought to be done by the person creating the document at the time it is prepared.
On a practical basis, this should be done selectively, and only on the documents that are likely to be requested. Predacting documents of little interest serves no one.