Lawsuit alleges OPM withholds workforce data

The personnel office is whittling down FOIA by withholding access to portions of a federal employee database containing nonpersonal information, a research group alleges.

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse lawsuit against OPM

The Office of Personnel Management is whittling down the Freedom of Information Act by withholding access to portions of a federal employee database containing nonpersonal information, a research group alleges in a lawsuit filed Dec. 6.

The suit was filed by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), which is affiliated with Syracuse University, in the U.S. District Court in Northern New York. It alleges that OPM violated FOIA by redacting information about more than 900,000 civilian employees and failing to explain why it withheld the data. The agencies affected include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Homeland Security and Defense departments.

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

For the past five years, TRAC has obtained such staffing information from an OPM database called the Central Personnel Data File by submitting FOIA requests. A TRAC Web service, known as TRACFed, organizes the data to show how the government allocates its workforce nationwide. Many organizations, including public interest groups, the media and government agencies, subscribe to the service.

But last year OPM delayed its response to TRAC's request for the names, salaries and work sites of federal civilian employees, pending a review of FOIA and Privacy Act considerations, 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.

TRAC's co-director David Burnham, a former New York Times reporter and an associate research professor in communications at Syracuse, said advocacy groups depend on official staffing data to craft surveys and track personnel changes. His researchers recently used the data to discover that the Bush administration has not fulfilled its promise to add 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. TRAC is not a directory meant for soliciting invitations or other personal engagements — it's for measuring accountability, Burnham said. "Accountability is the heart of representative democracy," he said.

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

Jeff Ruch, executive director of the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), scrutinized the personnel information last spring to validate the names of federal scientists for his surveys. The inability to access personnel records will affect upcoming surveys, Ruch said. He had planned to examine how the restructured personnel systems worked.

Federal employee unions would seemingly feel conflicted on the issue, which pertains to workers' privacy and open government. But union officials say TRAC's request is benign, while OPM's actions could endanger citizen rights.

"For them to just carte blanche say they are not going to release this information, just really flies in the face of what they should be doing to present an open and transparent government," said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

OPM cloaks civilian personnel records

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group affiliated with Syracuse University, tracks where the government assigns federal civilian employees and how much the government pays them, based on Office of Personnel Management records. Now, OPM does not want the public to have access to those records, and TRAC is suing.

Among other things, TRAC posts information about:

  • Employee names.
  • Where civilian employees work in the federal government.
  • What they do.
  • How much they get paid.
  • The specific office in which employees work.

— Aliya Sternstein

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