More details required for FOIA reports

The Justice Department is requiring that agencies provide greater detail on how Freedom of Information Act requests are processed and the request backlog as part of their annual FOIA reports.

The revised guidance, released May 22, incorporates legislative mandates from the Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National (OPEN) Government Act of 2007 and a 2005 executive order that required increased reporting on FOIA activities. The new annual report forms require agencies to provide details about how quickly they are processing requests and information on pending requests and fee waiver requests. The reports must also now be filed in terms of individual components and for the agency overall.

Melanie Pustay,  director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information and Privacy, said the new guidelines will make the reporting process more transparent.

“It’s helpful to agencies, and it’s helpful to the public,” she said.

The guidelines will also require agencies to report on backlogs of FOIA requests, which remain high in many agencies with as many as 200,000 outstanding governmentwide.

Kristin Adair, staff counsel at  George Washington University’s National Security Archive, a research institute and library that has filed about 35,000 FOIA requests since its inception in 1985, said her organization was generally pleased with the new guidelines.

“It’ll really help us to be able to evaluate how the agencies are doing and then to evaluate problems,” she said.

Adair said the requirement that agencies issue report mean processing times instead of only the median time as before will have a major effect. She said the median could be much less accurate and representative of actual processing times.

This year's winner of the National Security Archive's citation to the federal agency it says responds most poorly to FOIA requests was the Treasury Department. The agency got that award in February, when the archive said it had about 70 FOIA requests pending with Treasury. Most are still outstanding, with the oldest more than 20 years old, the archive said.

Justice hosted a conference today for FOIA officers from across the government to analyze the new rules. Agencies will be implementing those reporting practices during the rest of fiscal 2008 and are expected to be fully compliant by the start of fiscal 2009.

Pustay said the biggest concern from agencies is the need to change the data systems required for FOIA processing. Justice has formed a working group so officials can network on possible solutions and best practices for dealing with that issue.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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