My desk is a cluttered mess. Not cluttered with the usual water glasses, mini hand sanitzer bottles and pain reliever galore. No. It’s cluttered with thousands of almost entirely useless pieces of paper sent to me from the federal government.
I recently submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to most of the cabinet-level agencies. That includes the Department of Justice, Department of State and the Department of Energy, etc. So far two agencies–the DOJ and the DOE–have fulfilled my request, at least partially. The information I requested is intended to be part of a project looking for ways to measure government accountability. What has been returned so far is stacks upon stacks of incomplete, not uniform, partially hand-written, partially type-written forms. It’s hard to believe the federal government keeps records in this manner.
Unacceptable is the term that comes to mind.
The returned data is frustrating for a multitude of reasons. It’s not in a digital format as it was requested. It’s partially hand-written and grossly illegible. Plus, it’s hard to tell if there is any order to the data at all.
This afternoon, while going through it all and looking for something interesting to report on, I noticed pages missing. I had been operating under the idea that the thousands of documents in my lap were broken into subsets of documents. I thought this because the top right corner of each page from the DOE says something like “Page 2 of 8 Pages.” As I was going through each page I noticed there was no page one of what I thought was an eight page subset.
“Hey, wait!” I said to myself as I realized other issues with the numbering. “There are two page threes in this subset with different information on each. And hey! Page four is the same way!”
So I called the DOJ.
A very lovely woman told me the page numbers mean nothing. I felt assured. She asked me to pay attention to the top left hand corner which has the reporting office, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Civil Division. That’s the important part, she says.
So I go forward, feeling relieved that I don’t have to worry about page numbers. I began to go through the documents one more time. This time I notice the reporting office field, the field I was told is the important part, is largely blank. Blank. All throughout the stacks.
Here I am. Not any closer to holding the government accountable or showing the public what’s in the documents. I can’t clean missing data. I can’t use the sum function in Excel to determine quickly and accurately how much money was spent and recorded regarding this data.
At least one tree is dead. How many more will die in order to incompletely fill all of my FOIA requests.