Freedom of Information Act:

Agencies Are Making Progress in Reducing Backlog, but Additional Guidance Is Needed

GAO-08-344: Published: Mar 14, 2008. Publicly Released: Apr 14, 2008.

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Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), federal agencies must generally 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 on their processing of FOIA requests. For fiscal year 2006, agencies were also to report on their progress in implementing plans to improve FOIA operations, as directed by a December 2005 Executive Order. A major goal of the order was reducing backlogs of overdue FOIA requests (the statute requires an agency to respond to requests within 20 or, in some cases, 30 working days with a determination on whether it will provide records). For this study, GAO was asked, among other things, to determine trends in FOIA processing and agencies' progress in addressing backlogs of overdue FOIA requests since implementing their improvement plans. To do so, GAO analyzed 21 agencies' annual reports and additional statistics.

Based on data reported by major agencies in annual FOIA reports from fiscal years 2002 to 2006, the numbers of FOIA requests received and processed continue to rise, but the rate of increase has flattened in recent years. The number of pending requests carried over from year to year has also increased, although the rate of increase has declined. The increase in pending requests is primarily due to increases in requests directed to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In particular, increases have occurred at DHS's Citizenship and Immigration Services, which accounted for about 89 percent of DHS's total pending requests. However, the rate of increase is slightly less than it was in fiscal year 2005. Following the emphasis on backlog reduction in Executive Order 13392 and agency improvement plans, many agencies have shown progress in decreasing their backlogs of overdue requests as of September 2007. In response to GAO's request, 16 agencies provided information on their recent progress in addressing backlogs; results showed that 9 achieved decreases, 5 experienced increases, and 2 had no material change. Notably, according to this information, DHS was able to decrease its backlog of overdue requests by 29,972, or about 29 percent. However, the statistics provided by the 16 agencies varied widely, representing both overdue cases and all pending cases, as well as varying time frames. Further, 3 of 21 agencies reviewed were unable to provide statistics supporting their backlog reduction efforts, and 1 provided statistics by component, which could not be aggregated to provide an agencywide result. (The remaining agency reported no backlog before or after implementing its plan.) Tracking and reporting numbers of overdue cases is not a requirement of the annual FOIA reports or of the Executive Order. Although both the Executive Order and Justice's implementing guidance put a major emphasis on backlog reduction, agencies were given flexibility in developing goals and metrics that they considered most appropriate in light of their current FOIA operations and individual circumstances. As a result, agencies' goals and metrics vary widely, and progress could not be assessed against a common metric. The progress that many agencies made in reducing backlog suggests that the development and implementation of the FOIA improvement plans have had a positive effect. However, in the absence of consistent statistics on overdue cases, it is not possible to make a full assessment of governmentwide progress in this area. Justice's most recent guidance directs agencies to set goals for reducing backlogs of overdue requests in future fiscal years, which could lead to the development of a consistent metric; however, it does not direct agencies to monitor and report overdue requests or to develop plans for meeting the new goals. Without such planning and tracking, agencies may be challenged to achieve the reductions envisioned.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GSA implemented a centralized tracking system for requests, but did not initially establish procedures for checking to ensure that information on requests was entered correctly at all stages. However, in 2009, GSA put in place internal controls for its agencywide FOIA program, including spot checks on data entered into its FOIA tracking system. In May 2009, GSA conducted a review of implementation of these controls, which found that the controls were working. As a result of these actions, the agency and the public should have more reasonable assurance that FOIA data are reliable.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that FOIA data in the annual reports are reliable, the Administrator of General Services should ensure that appropriate internal controls are put in place to improve the accuracy and reliability of FOIA data, including processes, such as checks and reviews, to verify that required data are entered correctly.

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2012, HUD issued standard operating procedures for handling FOIA requests. These procedures include detailed instructions for when data should be entered into the agency's FOIA tracking system and steps for verifying the accuracy of the data. These procedures should help ensure that FOIA data are reliable.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that FOIA data are reliable, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development should ensure that appropriate policies and procedures are put in place to improve the accuracy and reliability of FOIA data, including procedures to ensure that all FOIA offices use tracking systems consistently and that information is entered accurately and promptly.

    Agency Affected: Department of Housing and Urban Development

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Although the Criminal Division did not establish goals and time frames for closing its oldest FOIA requests, it nonetheless directed attention to closing the oldest requests, which sharply reduced the age of its oldest requests to well under 6 years. In its 2008 Annual FOIA report, DOJ reported that the Criminal Division's ten oldest FOIA requests ranged in age from about 2,000 days to almost 5,000 days. In 2011, however, the oldest requests ranged in age from 115 days to 338 days. By achieving these results, Justice has substantially addressed our recommendation. The sustained attention to closing the oldest pending requests at the Criminal Division reduces the likelihood that aging FOIA requests will remain open indefinitely.

    Recommendation: The Attorney General should, to help ensure that its oldest requests receive appropriate attention, direct the Criminal Division to establish goals and time frames for closing its oldest requests, including those over 6 years old.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As we recommended, in its May 2008 guidance that issued annual FOIA reporting requirements to agencies, OIP included guidance on tracking and reporting backlogs. The guidance required agencies to report on backlogs of both initial requests and administrative appeals, and to provide yearly comparisons of those figures. The guidance also provided a definition of "backlog" for all agencies to follow, to facilitate agencies' tracking and reporting of comparable statistics. The additional guidance should contribute to improved reporting on FOIA backlogs, thus enabling the public and the Congress to more effectively monitor agencies' progress in reducing their backlogs.

    Recommendation: The Attorney General should, to help agencies achieve the backlog reduction goals planned for fiscal years 2008, 2009, and 2010 and to ensure that comparable statistics on backlog are available governmentwide, direct the Office of Information and Privacy to provide additional guidance to agencies on (1) developing plans or modifying existing plans to achieve these goals and (2) tracking and reporting backlog.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice


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