Report finds little progress processing FOIA requests

By Daniel Pulliam

March 5, 2007

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.

By Daniel Pulliam

March 5, 2007