Agency FOIA administration found to be improving

Agencies subject to the Freedom of Information Act are for the most part complying with an executive order outlining a two-year process for improving the implementation of the 40-year-old law, according to a new Justice Department report.

All 91 federal agencies subject to FOIA have prepared plans for improving the process of releasing federal documents to the public, refined the plans where necessary and posted them on their Web sites for public review, the report stated. Most agencies also fulfilled the order's first requirement successfully by appointing chief FOIA officers by Jan. 13, 2006.

In fiscal 2005, agencies handled more than 2.6 million FOIA requests at a cost of $300 million. This represents a 35 percent increase in activity over fiscal 2001, the report stated.

The executive order, signed by President Bush on Dec.14, 2005, directed agencies to ensure citizen-centered and results-oriented FOIA operations.

A number of improvement plans failed to properly address how the agencies would address backlogs of requests for information, the report stated. A few agencies have modified plans to comply with the order, including the Education Department, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, NASA, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

But a number of other agencies have yet to complete the modifications. These were the Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, Labor and Veterans Affairs departments; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation; the Federal Trade Commission; the General Services Administration; the Merit Systems Protection Board; the National Science Foundation; the National Transportation Safety Board and the Social Security Administration.

The report recommended a follow-up to a March 8 meeting of chief FOIA officers, a requirement that agencies review standard forms and correspondence formats used for FOIA purposes and increased use of technology for FOIA administration. Justice reviewers highlighted efforts at the Defense and Interior departments to use technology to streamline the process for releasing documents.

A recent governmentwide technology initiative is aimed at automating FOIA processes as a means of reducing backlogs. Several large decentralized agencies, such as the Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans Affairs departments, reported they were seeking automated systems for tracking FOIA requests.

GSA reported that its "field office" structure contributes to an inability to accurately track the types of responses throughout the agency.

The report stated that the Justice Department has focused on reducing backlogs by establishing a goal of closing the 10 oldest pending FOIA requests for records from its leadership offices on a regular basis. Other agencies, such as the Small Business Administration, do not have such backlogs, the report said.

Justice also urged agencies to follow GSA's lead by sending postcards to acknowledge the receipt of a FOIA request, rather than the standard written letters. This is a means of saving time and money for more substantial FOIA activities, the report said.

In the next step, agencies will be required to report on the implementation of the improvement plan's first stage by Feb. 1, 2007. Fiscal 2006 FOIA reports are due to President Bush by June 1, 2007. The fiscal 2007 report will be due in February 2008.

House Government Reform Management, Finance and Accountability Subcommittee Chairman Todd Platts, R-Pa., said in a statement the report provides a fair accounting of agencies' actions to improve the public's access to information.

But to further improve FOIA, Platts urged action on legislation he introduced to close loopholes in the law. The bill (H.R. 867), which would amend the FOIA, has passed out of Platts' subcommittee.

A companion bill in the Senate (S. 394) passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in September.

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