Treasury tops FOIA worst list

Despite recent policy changes, some critics see little progress on FOIA reforms

The Treasury Department was recently named the worst agency in responding to Freedom of Information Act requests. However, open-government advocates say Treasury has plenty of company.

George Washington University’s National Security Archive, the organization that selected Treasury to receive the 2008 Rosemary Award for FOIA noncompliance, has estimated that about 200,000 FOIA requests for information are pending governmentwide.

The award is the fourth of its kind bestowed by the research institute and library, which has filed about 35,000 FOIA requests since it opened in 1985.

The announcement coincided with the archive’s release of a report on the progress agencies have made in the two years since President Bush signed an executive order to revamp FOIA procedures.

“Despite spurring progress in some areas, President Bush’s executive order on FOIA has produced only limited improvements in FOIA compliance, and many of the 90 agencies surveyed have fallen short in meeting their own goals set pursuant to the order,” the archive reported.

The executive order required agencies to appoint chief FOIA officers and improve the processing of FOIA requests.

To assess the order’s effectiveness, the archive submitted FOIA requests to 90 federal agencies for information about their plans to implement the executive order.

On Dec. 31, Bush signed the Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act of 2007, which amended FOIA by placing additional responsibilities on agencies to meet deadlines, close loopholes in the request process and assign tracking numbers to FOIA requests.

The bill, sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), had the support of open-government groups and civil libertarians.

The legislation was helpful, but compliance with the new rules still varies from agency to agency, said Patrice Mc- Dermott, president of Openthegovernment.org.

Agencies’ old habits die hard, she added.

“Either the word hasn’t gotten out yet, or agencies don’t believe the law is going to be enforced,” she said. “The tools are there, but the will is not.”

The National Security Archive reported only “limited improvement in compliance with the E-FOIA amendments of 1996 that require agencies to post FOIA guidance and certain records online. The report noted that in a follow-up to an earlier archive report on agency Web sites, only one-third of the 12 agencies with the worst records of FOIA compliance showed significant improvement.

Meanwhile, Cornyn and Leahy introduced legislation March 12 that would require lawmakers to make explicit in any new legislative proposals whether they intend to create statutory exemptions to FOIA.

The announcement of the legislation coincided with Sunshine Week, a nationwide open-government initiative funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a private organization that supports the National Security Archive and other groups that promote open government.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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