Anyone who’s ever filed a Freedom of Information Act request can tell you that the federal bureaucracy is shockingly opaque despite supposedly bipartisan commitments to transparency. This has real consequences for the public’s understanding of what their government actually does every day. Almost all public records requests require watchdogs to specifically identify documents and personnel they are interested in, often without knowing if those documents even exist or if those personnel even still work for the government. This poses a conundrum, however: how can watchdogs know what or whose records to request if they don’t even know who works in a department?
Merrick Garland’s Department of Justice is a shockingly egregious example of this. This is the “About” section on the DOJ’s website. How is a reader supposed to find the most basic information about the agency—who actually works there?
There is no staff page that identifies anyone working in Garland’s office. Instead, watchdogs must scour news clips, LinkedIn, or cultivate original sources to find out who is running the Office of the Attorney General and its enforcement divisions. This information is crucial. It matters if Biden’s top climate advisors own stock in fossil fuel companies, or if a senior advisor to Garland formerly worked for Amazon. Instead, the public must cobble together press releases (if one was written in the first place) to identify principal deputies, acting officials and chiefs of staff across government. Unfortunately, these difficulties are not isolated to the DOJ. Most government agencies are seemingly intentionally cryptic about who is running them.
It does not have to be this way.
The Department of Labor discloses the names, positions, and phone numbers of senior staff members and allows you to search 30 different sub-agencies from one convenient location:
If the DOL has nothing to hide, why should the DOJ, or the State Department, or Health and Human Services? It would be easier for watchdogs and journalists to hold our public service accountable if every department were as transparent. Whether it’s a bump in the road of government adjusting to the expectations of the digital age, or an attempt to ward off public scrutiny, there’s no excuse for keeping public servants a secret from the public.
Biden’s Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during her first ever press conference that Biden wanted to “bring transparency and truth back to the government.” This small step could go a long way.
Photo Credit: “Attorney General Confirmation Hearing, Day 1“, C-SPAN.