Just how hard is it to get basic, non-controversial data from most federal agencies under the Freedom of Information Act? Pretty hard, it turns out.
Researchers at Syracuse University sent simple FOIA requests to 21 agencies in late January, asking for copies of the electronic files the FOIA offices themselves use to keep track of FOIA requests. Two months later, only seven had responded with complete, usable information.
The Homeland Security Department topped the list of quick responders, fully responsive after just nine business days. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and Management Division, Fish and Wildlife Service, Army, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services also complied.
While several agencies attempted to fulfill the request, 10 failed utterly and became unresponsive, including the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy, the federal entity that, according to its own website, is “responsible for encouraging agency compliance with the Freedom of Information Act,” Research Assistant Professor Greg Munno noted in a report on the findings. The CIA simply denied the request outright.
The requests were submitted by the university’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which administers the FOIA Project in an effort to document agency compliance with the law. TRAC submitted the identical requests as directed by each agency (email, fax or through a website) and asked for records in a format that retains the structure of the data, such as Excel. The fields requested include tracking number, date request was received, and the date it was closed.
“The requests were deliberately kept as simple as possible. TRAC purposely did not ask for any information that might be cause for redaction, delay, or difficulty,” Munno wrote. Through the FOIA Project TRAC plans to regularly update data on agency FOIA backlogs and processing times.
While the researchers say they want to highlight both good and bad practices to foster greater compliance, it looks like they’ll have more material on bad practices.