Report finds little progress processing FOIA requests

Agencies have made few, if any, strides on handling requests for public information more efficiently, according to a recent independent analysis.

Citizens seeking documents from federal agencies under the Freedom of Information Act are waiting longer to get a response, and are increasingly less likely to get the information they want, the report from the Arlington, Va., Coalition of Journalists for Open Government stated. The group used these findings to argue for FOIA reform beyond that required by a December 2005 executive order.

But officials from the Justice Department, which shares responsibility with the Office of Management and Budget for helping agencies follow the executive order, disagreed.

The coalition of journalists analyzed a collection of FOIA performance reports from 26 agencies. Half of the reports only were updated through fiscal 2005, just before Bush signed the executive order. Thirteen agencies had completed their fiscal 2006 reports, providing some perspective on the period following the mandate.

The backlog of FOIA requests increased from 105,119 in fiscal 2004 to 149,262 in fiscal 2005, the coalition's report stated. The portion of requests granted dropped 4 percentage points in the same period, from 67 percent to 63 percent.

For the 13 agencies that filed fiscal 2006 reports, the backlog increased from 43,079 in fiscal 2005 to 45,286 in fiscal 2006. The rate of requests granted by those agencies during that period dropped 2 percentage points, from 61 percent to 59 percent.

A Justice Department official who asked to remain anonymous said agencies have just started to reform their FOIA practices. The full benefits of the executive order, which directed agencies to make their FOIA operations citizen-centric and results-oriented, have yet to be realized, the official said, noting many milestones will occur in fiscal 2007 and fiscal 2008.

Several agencies already have reported a backlog reduction, and more are using technology to help manage the process of responding to requests, said Justice spokesman Evan Peterson.

The Justice Department decreased its own backlog of FOIA requests from 8,637 in fiscal 2005 to 8,004 in fiscal 2006, with 25 fewer full-time employees, the report said. The agency granted 48 percent of the requests processed in fiscal 2006, down slightly from 50 percent in fiscal 2005.

"This is an issue we take very seriously, and the department's FOIA officials are working closely with agencies to assist them in their compliance with the president's executive order," Peterson said.

But Pete Weitzel, author of the report and coordinator for the coalition, said the numbers show a need for legislative change to supplement the executive order. The order went into effect about three months into fiscal 2006, giving agencies enough time to make improvements that should have shown up in their fiscal 2006 reports, he said.

"You don't have to have a big plan to make some changes," Weitzel said. "You know you're going to get beat on the head if you don't do something."

Scott Hodes, a former government attorney in Justice's Office of Information and Privacy and author of The FOIA blog, which tracks government FOIA and privacy issues, wrote that while the executive order "made agencies think about their FOIA programs, they weren't required to do anything constructive about them."

Members of the FOIA community expect the group's report to help garner support for reform measures lawmakers may introduce this month to coincide with Sunshine Week March 11-16.

Meanwhile, last Thursday, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the panel with jurisdiction over the FOIA, introduced two bills related to openness in government.

The first, the Presidential Records Act Amendments (H.R. 1255), would nullify an executive order giving presidents broad authority to withhold presidential records, restoring public access to those documents. The second, the Presidential Library Donation Reform Act (H.R. 1254), would require the disclosure of donors to presidential libraries.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.