Open Government

Federal agencies flunking FOIA

Image of file folders

Federal agencies are performing poorly when it comes to answering Freedom of Information Act requests, communicating current policies to requesters and maintaining online portals for filing, according to a new report from the Center for Effective Government.

An analysis of the FOIA practices of the 15 agencies that received about 90 percent of all requests in fiscal 2012 indicated a lack of a consistent approach to implementing the law, and wide disparities among agencies in responding to requests.

No agency earned an "A" on what is billed as the first-ever FOIA report card.

The Social Security Administration was the top performer across the government, earning a B grade mostly on the basis of processing a high volume of requests in a timely manner, even though its disclosure rules and website were not among the government-wide leaders. The Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency scored among the leaders for effectively communicating their policies and maintaining a usable website, despite not scoring very high in answering requests.

The State Department ranked at the bottom, responding to just 1 percent of requests within 20 days, and fully denying 44 percent of all requests, by far the highest percentage of denials across the government.

Typically, agencies are supposed to respond to simple requests within 20 days. Complex requests can take longer, especially when documents must be retrieved from archival sources. The National Archives and Records Administration, which helps develop government-wide FOIA policy, train records officers and is seen as a leader in open government issues, scored low on response times possibly in part because of the complexity and breadth of the records under its purview.

Security agencies predictably scored among the lowest when it came to accommodating requests. However, some non-security agencies also ranked among the least responsive, with the Department of Labor fully answering just 24 percent of requests. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission fully complied with just 4 percent of requests.

The raw numbers might conceal some of the story. Some requests are made for ineligible information, and many contain errors. Additionally, there is a disparity in the reported caseload of FOIA staffers at agencies. At EEOC, the average FOIA staffer is responsible for more than 500 requests a year; at EPA, the average caseload is 76.

The Center for Effective Government recommends agencies keep pace with updated FOIA rules  and integrate IT into their FOIA management. Software could help with processing some categories of requests automatically, without the need for human intervention. Agencies can also help keep pace by posting frequently requested material online in a FOIA reading room – a practice employed by many agencies. The report also recommends that Congress codify fee-assessment procedures and expand the authority of the Office of Government Information Services, the FOIA ombudsman housed at NARA, to make policy recommendations directly to Congress and the White House without a review period. 

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is a staff writer covering Congress, the FCC and other key agencies. Connect with him on Twitter: @thisismaz.

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