DOJ, agencies get mixed reviews on FOIA

While DOJ claims major gains for fed agencies on FOIA; watchdog report shows mixed progress

Federal agencies are getting mixed reviews on their open government efforts: While the Justice Department today reported major improvements in agency transparency, an independent watchdog study said 46 percent of agencies in a recent survey — including Justice -- were unresponsive to a request for information.

The contrasting assessments of progress coincide with Sunshine Week, an annual commemoration sponsored by advocacy groups that promote open government and improved handling of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Justice officials today announced creation of the new website to provide comprehensive information to the public on the transparency law, and also released a report outlining gains in transparency by that department and other federal agencies in 2010.

Related coverage:

FBI launches new form to accept FOIA requests electronically

Open government beats FOIA for information access

For example, Justice said it became more responsive to FOIA requests in 2010, with full releases of information rising by 21 percent in comparison to 2009, and partial releases increasing by 18 percent, according to the department’s report.

However, the 2011 Knight Foundation Open Government Survey of 90 agencies showed mixed progress on transparency. The survey team filed FOIA requests with 90 agencies that have chief FOIA officers asking for copies of concrete changes made in FOIA regulations, guidance or training as a result of White House FOIA guidance of March 2010 and January 2009. The survey results were released March 13 by the National Security Archive research organization at George Washington University.

That survey indicated that 49 of the 90 agencies showed concrete improvements in handling FOIA requests, while 41 agencies were unresponsive. Proportionally, 54 percent of the agencies surveyed were responsive and 46 percent unresponsive.

The unresponsive agencies included Justice and the Commerce, Education, Energy and State departments, the archive organization said. Justice officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The results were an improvement over last year’s results from the same survey. In the 2010 Knight open government survey results, only 13 out of 90 agencies were judged to have made improvements.

Four federal agencies, including the Legal Services Corporation and the Merit Systems Protection Board, in addition to failing to respond to the survey’s FOIA request, did not even acknowledge the request. “That indifference toward FOIA shows just how far some agencies lag behind implementing the law,” Nate Jones, FOIA coordinator for the National Security Archive, said in a news release.

Meanwhile, Justice officials said is a flagship initiative of the department’s open government plan.

“Where we can open up the process of governing and enlist our fellow citizens to participate in solving the challenges we face, we’re all going to be better off,” Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli said in a news release.

Justice officials also released a report highlighting other agency improvements in FOIA handling in 2010:

  • Agriculture Department’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service reduced its backlog of FOIA requests by almost 43 percent in 2010 compared with 2009.
  • The Defense Department’s Office of the Secretary of Defense/Joint Staff posted 85 percent of all of its FOIA responses -- more than 300,000 pages -- on its website.
  • Education has set a goal of reducing its static FOIA backlog by 12 percent in fiscal 2011 and increasing proactive release of documents to the FOIA Reading Room by 25 percent.
  • The Health and Human Services Department's Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reduced its FOIA backlog by nearly 66 percent after nearly doubling the resources it committed to FOIA and creating a backlog strike force.
  • The Interior Department reduced its backlog of FOIA requests by 10 percent despite a spike in the number and complexity of requests received following the Deepwater Horizon/British Petroleum Oil Spill.

Responding to DOJ’s report on progress, Jones agreed there were some steps forward. “There are definitely some gains, but it also shows that a lot of work needs to be done because just over half of the agencies are complying with the Obama administration’s FOIA goals,” he said.

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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