WASHINGTON- When President Obama signed the Open Government Initiative on January 21, 2009, he said “the Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent, and of holding it accountable. And I expect members of my administration not simply to live up to the letter but also the spirit of this law.”
But an evaluation released today by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee found that many federal agencies failed or struggled to transparently demonstrate an ability to track basic information about the processing of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
“While many evaluations of FOIA look at the end result of responses, the committee conducted an evaluation of the process and tracking that agencies conduct in managing requests,” said Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa. “A number of agencies demonstrated that they are able to track basic information about requests, while others either would not or could not provide such information as requested. The finding that many FOIA offices struggle to demonstrate transparency about very basic information is troubling and necessitates greater scrutiny.”
The Committee found that the three agencies that receive the most requests – the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Justice – were all missing critical information from their FOIA tracking logs. The Department of Justice only provided information for 11 of its 40 components that respond to FOIA requests. The Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Labor, and Department of Transportation received top grades for demonstrating an ability to track and provide information as requested, but the report cautioned that agencies that track information could still be deficient in meeting their legal responsibilities under FOIA – something that this report did not evaluate.
“When agencies cannot even produce FOIA logs with basic information to Congress, it raises serious concerns about their ability to meet their legal obligations to FOIA requesters,” the report concluded.
Overall, the scorecard’s criteria found that the Federal government earned a grade of C- based on averages of the 17 cabinet level Departments. Smaller agencies that handle fewer requests fared slightly better.
Additionally, the Committee found that:
• Many FOIA logs are vague, missing information, and lacking uniformity
• Some agencies failed to track types of requesters, despite different categories of requesters receiving different treatment
• Legally required tracking numbers for requests that cannot be resolved within 10 days are often missing
• Some agencies could not produce electronic logs
• Some logs do not list status or disposition of requests
• Logs at the Department of Justice, which sets FOIA policy for the rest of the federal government, are grossly insufficient.
The Committee issued 180 requests for FOIA tracking logs and evaluated the response based on five necessary components. Agencies were assigned a grade A through F based upon the number of components they successfully met. Agencies that did not respond with any records or failed to produce them in digital format received an F.
A full copy of the scorecard is available here. The Oversight Subcommittee on Technology and Information Policy will hold a hearing next Wednesday (March 21) on the lack of progress of federal agencies to use information technology to increase transparency and improve processing of FOIA requests.
*** (3/20/12 Revisions to Report)
· The Department of Labor provided logs for FY 2009. The report has been updated by removing the comment indicating these logs had not been provided. Under the grading criteria used by the committee in this project, this change does not affect the Department of Labor’s score of A-.
· The report originally stated that the committee only received three sets of logs from the Department of Justice’s 40 components. Subsequent to the release of the report, however, the Department correctly notified the committee that it had provided logs for 11 of 40 components, not 3 of 40 components as was originally stated. The report has been updated to reflect this change. Under the grading criteria used by the committee in this project, this change does not affect the Department of Justice’s score of D.