Freedom of Information Act:

Processing Trends Show Importance of Improvement Plans

GAO-07-441: Published: Mar 30, 2007. Publicly Released: Mar 30, 2007.

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The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) establishes that federal agencies must provide access to their information, enabling the public to learn about government operations and decisions. To help ensure proper implementation, the act requires that agencies report annually to the Attorney General, giving specific information about their FOIA operations, such as numbers of requests received and processed and median processing times. Also, a recent Executive Order directs agencies to develop plans to improve FOIA operations, including decreasing backlog. For this study, GAO was asked to examine the status and trends of FOIA processing at 25 major agencies as reflected in annual reports, as well as the extent to which improvement plans contain the elements emphasized by the Executive Order. To do so, GAO analyzed the 25 agencies' annual reports and improvement plans.

Based on data in annual reports from 2002 to 2005, the public continued to submit more requests for information from the federal government through FOIA. Despite increasing the numbers of requests processed, many agencies did not keep pace with the volume of requests that they received. As a result, the number of pending requests carried over from year to year has been steadily increasing. Agency reports also show great variations in the median times to process requests (less than 10 days for some agency components to more than 100 days at others). However, the ability to determine trends in processing times is limited by the form in which these times are reported: that is, in medians only, without averages (that is, arithmetical means) or ranges. Although medians have the advantage of providing representative numbers that are not skewed by a few outliers, it is not statistically possible to combine several medians to develop broader generalizations (as can be done with arithmetical means). This limitation on aggregating data impedes the development of broader pictures of FOIA operations, which could be useful in monitoring efforts to improve processing and reduce the increasing backlog of requests, as intended by the Executive Order. The improvement plans submitted by the 25 agencies mostly included goals and timetables addressing the four areas of improvement emphasized by the Executive Order: eliminating or reducing any backlog of FOIA requests; increasing reliance on dissemination of records that can be made available to the public without the need for a FOIA request, such as through posting on Web sites; improving communications with requesters about the status of their requests; and increasing public awareness of FOIA processing. Most of the plans (20 of 25) provided goals and timetables in all four areas; some agencies omitted goals in areas where they considered they were already strong. Although details of a few plans could be improved, all the plans focus on making measurable improvements and form a reasonable basis for carrying out the goals of the Executive Order.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act of 2007 (OPEN Government Act of 2007), became Public Law No: 110-175 on December 31, 2007. This act contains language that requires agencies to report average processing times and ranges.

    Matter: To improve the usefulness of the statistics in agency annual FOIA reports, Congress may wish to consider amending the act to require agencies to report additional statistics on processing time, which at a minimum should include average times and ranges.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Justice agreed that summaries and aggregate statistics for categories of agencies, as well as governmentwide, provide the public and the Congress with a good overall picture of FOIA processing governmentwide. Accordingly, the DOJ's Office of Information and Privacy agreed to resume the compilation of these summaries, beginning with a summary of the fiscal year 2006 annual reports. This summary was posted to the DOJ website via a FOIA Post on September 14, 2007. The post contains summaries of the various information presented in the annual FOIA reports, including, but not limited to, number of requests received, backlog reduction, disposition of requests, and section XII. The summaries provide an overall governmentwide picture for each category and also provided specific examples for certain agencies.

    Recommendation: To provide a clearer picture of FOIA processing both in a given year and over time, the Attorney General should direct Justice's Office of Information and Privacy to use data from annual reports to develop summaries and aggregate statistics (as appropriate) for categories of agencies (such as major departments), as well as governmentwide.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA has taken various actions that address this recommendation. For example, it has implemented an automated tracking system for FOIA requests and issued procedures for entering FOIA data. The department also has instructed state offices to certify the reporting by state and county offices, and to ensure that county offices follow procedures. Collectively, these actions should improve the accuracy and completeness of data in USDA's FOIA annual reports.

    Recommendation: To ensure that USDA data in FOIA annual reports are accurate and complete, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief FOIA Officer for the department to revise the department's FOIA improvement plan to include activities, goals, and milestones to improve data reliability for the Farm Service Agency and to monitor results.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Treasury has taken actions that address this recommendation. Specifically, it has developed a capability to provide FOIA request status information online. It has also developed an automated FOIA application process that provides more information to users, as well as an electronic search capability to provide easier searching and access to information posted electronically online. These actions should improve Treasury's communication with FOIA requesters and the public.

    Recommendation: To ensure that its plan includes an appropriate focus on communicating with requesters and the public, the Secretary of the Treasury should direct the department's Chief FOIA Officer to review its FOIA operations in the other areas emphasized in the Executive Order (increasing reliance on public dissemination of records, improving communications with FOIA requesters about the status of their requests, and increasing public awareness of FOIA processing) and, as appropriate, revise the improvement plan for fiscal year 2007 to include goals and milestones in these areas.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury


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