Tools of Accountability: A Recap of Our Whistleblower Workshops
As some governments become less open, the role of whistleblowers as agents of accountability become even more important. That’s why Open Gov Hub hosted two whistleblower workshops in mid-July, as whistleblowers continue to be an important piece of promoting open governments.
In collaboration with the Government Accountability Project, Open the Government, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, The Intercept, and MuckRock, we gathered public interest activists and immigration justice activists together over two different workshops.
Working with whistleblowers is a tricky and ofttimes risky endeavor, so the discussants at both workshops detailed best practices in working with whistleblowers as well as the legal rights of doing so.
A key component of those best practices included having a multi-pronged approach for investigating the abuses the whistleblower has exposed. One such approach is leveraging the information to be obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.
After the discussants discussed their methods for working with whistleblowers and FOIA requests, we had breakout sessions where those in attendance could ask hands-on questions to the experts in the room.
Here are some key takeaways from the workshops:
Most whistleblower laws are tied to employee laws and are a patchwork of laws (with over 100+ at the federal level). Government Accountability Project is trying to consolidate them.
National Defense Authorization Act: protects federal contractors
Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989
Whistleblower Enhancement Protection Act of 2012: protects against scientific censorship
Experienced lawyers are essential for whistleblowers to have, as lawyers have much stronger protections than NGOs and the press (who whistleblowers usually go to).
There’s almost no protections for national intelligence whistleblowers, e.g. Snowden, Reality Winner.
Whistleblowing is a right, not a crime.
Leveraging and using the information whistleblowers provide is vital to encourage more people to speak up against abuses.
Use resources such as FOIA, a lawyer, NGOs, the press, and Congress to push for action.
Whistleblowers are a source of info, not the only source. Use FOIA and other resources.
Work with the government worker getting your FOIA request through the system; try to make their job easier by being as detailed and specific in what you are looking for as possible. The more evidence you have that the document exists, the better chance you’ll have at getting it.
Be prepared to appeal any FOIA request that might get denied.
Key FOIA resources: iFOIA, Muckrock, FOIA Online, FOIA.gov
State and local FOIA laws can be effective tools when federal FOIA isn’t working out
Before submitting a FOIA request:
Do background research
Describe specific records
Target various agencies
Diversify how you verify your sources’ info so that you don’t expose them.
Be careful how you do FOIA requests so you don’t reveal your source.
Include broad data searches in your work to protect the small piece of data your source gave you.
All federal agencies are supposed to have documents, request logs, and a FOIA reading room online.
Private contractors are not required to reveal documents through FOIA, e.g. private prisons, company algorithms, etc.
Pro Tip for Google Searching for specific files on agency websites:
[Keyword] filetype: [.pdf, .ppt, .xlx] site: [.gov]
Scour Document Cloud for a repository of documents, annotations, timelines, and more
Want to get some excellent hands on advice about FOIA requests? Check out this presentation with loads of tips from MuckRock.