Technology to clear FOIA backlog underused, GAO finds

Government transparency hinges partly on the public’s access to information, but a new report finds agencies are struggling with a backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests and aren’t fully using the technologies that could help smooth the process.

In a July 31 report to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the Government Accountability Office examined how agencies are managing  FOIA programs and the extent to which they have implemented technology to support FOIA processing.

The report established the major components of Homeland Security, Defense, Justice and Health and Human Services departments have made some inroads in improving their FOIA program management. For example, to address outstanding FOIA requests, agencies have added extra resources and streamlined processes and changed procedures in attempts to improve. However, these actions have had mixed results.

For example, since 2009, 10 of the 16 agencies in GAO’s study cut down on their backlogs. However, two saw no change, and the remaining four had even larger backlogs. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services had the largest increase - a 62 percent spike in requests received, from 71,429 in 2009 to 115,545 in 2011.

Agencies were also found to have varying degrees of technology implementation to process FOIA requests. For example, the use of a single tracking system and providing requesters the ability to track the status of requests online differs among agencies. The Air Force, US Citizenship and Immigration Services and the FBI, for example, use the single tracking system to track the status of a request, store, route and redact responsive records; and review the case file to approve redactions and fee calculations electronically.

Agencies that hadn’t yet adopted any of the 13 technological capabilities to process FOIA requests said they had plans to do so, although some didn’t give a specific deadline. HHS officials, for example, weren’t able to give any details on when they would integrate the capability that allows a requester to track the status of a request online.

Office of the Secretary of Defense and Joint Staff  officials said they hadn’t adopted that same capability because their tracking system resides on a classified network. However, officials are working to implement a solution by October 2012. At Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons officials gave the same time frame for when they intend to implement the request-status online tracking capability.

The Navy has implemented only five capabilities and currently lacks a single tracking system or the capability to, among other things, multi-track and route requests to the responsible office and generate periodic report statistics. Navy officials said the reason for the missing technology capabilities was due to their re-engineering of FOIA processes to identify areas of inefficiencies. Officials expect to implement a departmentwide system that includes the missing technology capabilities by October 2012.

Although best practices call for sharing of common IT systems for better interoperability, the review found that the agency components use FOIA processing systems that don’t electronically exchange data. Using different systems can add time when an agency wants to refer a FOIA request to another agency or to consult with other components, the report noted.

GAO recommended the agencies improve their FOIA program management by taking measures to decrease backlogs, improve FOIA libraries, and implement technology. By large, the agencies agreed or generally agreed with GAO.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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