Dec. 15, 2005 – With no notice and little public discussion, a federal agency is refusing to release personnel information on a set of federal employees. A public-interest clearinghouse requested the data, which is of a nature that has been kept public for some 200 years, in order to make it available to journalists, researchers and advocacy organizations.
In a statement released last week, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), an information and research project focused on the federal government, announced it had filed a lawsuit in a New York District Court. The suit challenges the Office of Personnel Managementâ€™s (OPM) failure to fully comply with the fourteen-month-old public records request. TRAC, which is affiliated with Syracuse University, estimates that, in a departure from previous practice, OPM is withholding information on about 900,000 members of the federal workforce .
"Secret governors are incompatible with a free government," TRAC co-directors David Burnham and Susan Long charged in a February 2 letter to OPM demanding information on what seems to be an OPM policy change the release of information. "Basic information about the employees who carry out the day-to-day actions of government is critical for meaningful public oversight."
The true size of the federal workforce is disputed by academics and researchers. A 2003 report by the centrist Brookings Institution found that in the prior year there were over 12 million workers either directly employed by federal bodies or contracted by them. An additional 4,650,000 people were employed by state and local agencies due to federal mandates, the study found.
According to the National Academy of Public Administrators (NAPA), a nonprofit governance advisory group created by Congress, measuring the number of federal employees is nearly impossible today due to the dramatic rise in outsourced contract work.
TRAC has been filing Freedom of Information Act requests for data on the federal workforce for over fifteen years. The group noted in court papers that it has has, until this year, run into few problems. In the past, OPM has provided the organization with detailed information about employee pay grades, positions, locations and other job-related specifics, though the type and amount of data released each year has fluctuated.