FOIA Requests Hit Record High, Processing Improves

Justice reports that backlog came down, but average response time rose.

Document requesters used the Freedom of Information Act in record numbers in fiscal 2016, but agency offices still managed to reduce the long-standing backlog, according to the latest annual report from the Justice Department.

FOIA offices governmentwide received a record high of 788,769 requests, a 10.6 percent increase over the previous year, Justice’s Office of Information Policy reported on Wednesday. Requests have marched steadily upward since 2009, with a slight dip in fiscal 2015.

The Homeland Security Department received the most requests, as it has in previous years, followed by Justice and Defense departments, the National Archives and Records Administration and the Veterans Affairs Department.

The number of requests agencies processed collectively was 759,842 in fiscal 2016, a slight decrease of 1.3 percent from 2015. FOIA officials over the past two fiscal years beat numbers processed in the previous five by about 100,000. And the number of backlogged requests in past two years had been whittled from 159,741 in fiscal 2014 to 115,080 in fiscal 2016.

Even so, the average processing time for simple track requests for agencies lengthened, to 28.04 days, compared with 23 days in fiscal 2015, which is a 21.9 percent hike.

In the disposition of the requests, the government’s overall release rate last year was 91.3 percent, holding steady. Agencies released records in full in 35.2 percent of cases, and in part in 56.2 percent of cases. Only 8.6 percent (42,995) of requests processed for a disclosure determination resulted in a full denial, under the FOIA law’s exemptions. Some 4.5 percent of requests were deemed improper.

Finally, 15,095 document denials by agency FOIA offices were appealed in fiscal 2016, a record-high. DHS received the most appeals.