The request was the same but the replies were very different.
When MuckRock asked numerous government offices for copies of their contracts with Booz Allen Hamilton from the last five years, we received a range of responses. We also asked for copies of any reports the contractor might have produced for each respective agency over the same period of time.
The Booz Allen Hamilton survey was the first time MuckRock used its new multi-request feature, which allows users to address several agencies in one form. This unique tool would make massive endeavors similar the Drone Census and the automated license plate recognition project much easier.
Out of 75 departments (almost all of them federal) asked for contracts, at least 15 called the request too vague or burdensome. They asked for specific contract numbers or further information.
The National Security Agency completed a free two-hour search but quickly determined the request as written could not be fulfilled. “We have determined that the amount of records is voluminous and would require an elaborate search,” the NSA wrote. “In addition, we expect that a search of that magnitude will result in unusually high search costs, which would be passed on to you as an ‘all other’ requester.”
After months without acknowledgement, the Department of Health and Human Services replied, “Right now this request is very broad and may require a tremendous amount of search and review throughout the entire agency.” A government information specialist for the agency went on to ask for a more detailed description of “what specifically your organization is looking for regarding the final report (i.e. budget, personnel, HR, etc.).”
NASA also called the request too vague, and asked MuckRock to provide “specific document requests, contract numbers, etc., that will allow us to conduct a non-random, reasonable search for responsive records.”
“NASA is not equipped to conduct a text search for ‘Copies of contracts with Booz Allen Hamilton and Any final reports delivered by Booz Allen Hamilton,’ throughout all files or contract files in the Agency that will produce a list of responsive records,” a FOIA officer wrote. “Information of that nature is produced and compiled by various offices throughout the Agency.”
Other departments fulfilled MuckRock’s request without issue, save for some delay in processing time. The Department of Education did not ask for clarification, nor did the National Park Service. To be fair, some agencies held relatively fewer contracts with Booz Allen Hamilton in the last 5 years, which likely made for less work.
Documents that were released often contained redactions to protect trade secrets, commercial interests and private information about personnel.
Some offices were able to provide files after MuckRock narrowed its request, including the United States Postal Service and Amtrak. The State Department is among the larger agencies that asked for a more targeted request. At first, a representative for the agency simply checked a box saying MuckRock did not reasonably describe the records we requested. “Accordingly, your request is invalid and you case has been closed,” the reply read.
MuckRock later provided specific contract numbers on April 6, but we are still awaiting the return of responsive documents.
Image via BoozAllen.com