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.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
General Services Administration 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.
Department of Housing and Urban Development 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.
Department of Justice 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.
Department of Justice 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.

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