Lawsuit charges OPM with concealing civilian staffing data

A new lawsuit alleges that the Office of Personnel Management is withholding access to portions of a federal employee database containing non-personal information that Congress authorized for public dissemination nearly 200 years ago. A research group affiliated with Syracuse University filed the lawsuit against OPM Dec. 6.

Co-directors of the research group, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), allege that OPM violated the Freedom of Information Act by redacting information about more than 900,000 civilian employees and failing to explain why it withheld the information.

The redacted employee information is related to agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Homeland Security Department. OPM also excluded Defense Department employees from the list.

In 1816, Congress authorized the government to give the American people access to information about the number of federal employees in various positions. The first name in the first register of employees was President James Madison.

For the past five years, TRAC has obtained such staffing information on CD-ROMs by submitting FOIA requests to OPM. A TRAC Web service organizes the data to show how the government allocates its personnel nationwide. Numerous organizations, including public interest groups, news media and government agencies, subscribe to the service.

But last year OPM delayed its response to TRAC’s request for the names, salaries and worksites of federal civilian employees, pending a review and revision of OPM’s data release policy, according to a letter written by Gary Lukowski, OPM's Workforce Information and Planning Group manager. Eventually, OPM delivered some of the requested information, without the records from DOD and about 40 percent of the government’s civilian workforce.

OPM has not provided TRAC the new data release policy that governed the agency’s redactions, according to TRAC.

TRAC’s co-director David Burnham, a former New York Times journalist and an associate research professor at Syracuse, said advocacy groups depend on official staffing data to craft surveys and track personnel changes. His own researchers recently used the data to discover that the Bush Administration has not fulfilled its promise to increase the number of border patrol agents along the Canada-Alaska border, a potential terrorist target.

Burnham said the value of such information lies in its authenticity and reliability. “It’s a description from the government data about what the government is doing and not doing,” he said today. TRAC’s other co-director, Susan Long, is a statistician and an associate professor at Syracuse.

Burnham noted that, during the past years, TRAC subscribers have included government offices and agencies such as the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, the Supreme Court Library and the Government Accountability Office.

TRAC is not a directory meant for soliciting invitations or other personal engagements but, rather, for measuring accountability. Burnham said. “Accountability is the heart of representative democracy,” he said.

Watchdog groups say that without such data, they would be unable to analyze how new personnel rules that DHS and DOD have adopted ultimately reshape the federal workforce.

OPM officials declined to comment on the lawsuit other than to acknowledge that TRAC has taken legal action against OPM. The officials said they have not yet read the filing.

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