GAO: DHS has mixed record on FOIA

The Homeland Security Department agency that deals with immigration has reduced its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) backlog since 2006, but four other agencies in the department saw sharp increases in their overdue requests during that period, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The Transportation Security Administration’s backlog increased by a factor of seven, from 45 to 321 requests, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection had a four-fold increase in overdue requests, from 524 to 2,198.

The agencies should consider releasing the records electronically and providing a Web-based service to allow applicants to check the status of their requests, GAO recommended in a report published March 20.

Under FOIA, agencies are required to disclose public information when requested to do so. A request is considered backlogged or overdue when an agency has not responded to it within 20 working days.

President George W. Bush issued an executive order in 2005 that asked agencies to develop plans to improve their responsiveness to FOIA requests. DHS began implementing its plan in 2007, which included hiring additional personnel, enhancing training and increasing reporting of data.

The plan had a positive effect on the largest FOIA backlog, which is at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Overdue requests were reduced from 89,124 in September 2006 to 70,175 in October 2008, a 21 percent reduction.

However, other agencies at DHS experienced sharp increases in overdue FOIA requests during that time, GAO said. In addition to increased backlogs at TSA and CBP, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s backlog increased from 236 to 619 requests, and the Coast Guard’s increased from 906 to 1,152 requests.

GAO recommended greater internal monitoring and oversight and component-specific training. It also recommended electronic dissemination of FOIA information and electronic redaction of records when necessary.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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