Pete Souza/White House

Obama FOIA efforts earn mixed grades

House Oversight panel and OMBWatch point to missing information.

Many federal agencies have failed to track basic information in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, according to a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee study released Thursday.

A separate, rosier study from nonprofit OMBWatch noted FOIA progress compared to previous years.

The congressional evaluation based on 180 requests for FOIA logs at 17 Cabinet-level departments and smaller agencies resulted in an overall grade of C-minus, the committee said.

“A number of agencies demonstrated that they are able to track basic information about requests, while others either would not or could not provide such information as requested,” said panel Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. He called the report’s conclusion “troubling and necessitates greater scrutiny.”

The departments that received the most FOIA requests -- Homeland Security, Defense, and Justice -- were missing critical information from their FOIA tracking logs, the study found. Justice, for example, provided information for only three of its 40 components that handle requests.

The departments that demonstrated the most complete log information were Education, Energy, Labor and Transportation.

Nearly half the logs were deemed insufficient, though some contained additional helpful information, the congressional report said. But too many were “vague, missing information and lacking uniformity.”

The more positive evaluation was released Wednesday by OMBWatch, which concluded that the Obama administration “has continued to make progress” in responding to FOIA requests efficiently. Agencies processed more in fiscal 2011, a rise of 6 percent, than in either of the previous two years since President Obama announced his government openness initiative, it said.

The numbers of discretionary exemptions (under each agency’s rules) and denials decreased, the watchgroup said approvingly.

"After the Bush administration wrought havoc on the FOIA system, the Obama administration is still rebuilding," said Sean Moulton, OMBWatch’s director of federal information policy. “We’re glad to see generally increased openness, but more work needs to be done to usher in the type of government openness and transparency that the American people want and deserve.”

But OMBWatch also found weaknesses and agencies struggling. Due to a surge in requests, the overall FOIA backlog grew by 19 percent, its study said. And the number of exemptions that are required because of other federal laws rose a noteworthy 64 percent, it noted.

The Justice Department this week marked the first-year anniversary of its website FOIA.gov, which contains Freedom of Information Act data for all agencies.

The House panel plans a hearing for March 21 on federal agencies’ difficulties using information technology to improve FOIA processing.

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