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Freedom of Information Act: Federal Agencies' Recent Implementation Efforts

GAO-20-406R Published: Mar 11, 2020. Publicly Released: Mar 16, 2020.
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Fast Facts

Based on the principles of openness and accountability in government, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires federal agencies to give the public access to government records and information.

The number of FOIA requests increased over 30% from fiscal year 2012 to 2018. In this period, the backlog of requests—generally those that have not been responded to in 20 business days—also increased. The backlog generally tracked to the growth in the number of requests; from fiscal year 2015 through 2018, the backlog was about 15% of requests received.

Agencies also reported using more resources on FOIA efforts.

Agencies Reported Increases in FOIA Requests Received and Processed from Fiscal Years (FY) 2012 to 2018

Bar graph showing an increase in requests received and processed

Bar graph showing an increase in requests received and processed

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What GAO Found

The number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests government-wide increased more than 30 percent from fiscal year (FY) 2012 to 2018, according to agency data. Agencies are generally required to respond to a FOIA request within 20 business days with a determination of the scope of the documents they will produce and the exemptions they will claim with respect to any withheld document. Agencies are then required to promptly provide the responsive documents, if any. From FY 2012 to 2018, the backlog of requests—that is, the number of requests or administrative appeals that are pending beyond FOIA's required time period for a response at the end of the FY—increased more than 80 percent. However, with the exception of FY 2014, the growth in the backlog has generally tracked the growth in the number of requests. In FY 2015 through FY 2018, the backlog was around 15 percent of requests received. Agencies also reported that resources spent on FOIA implementation increased from FY 2012 to FY 2018.

Since 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Information Policy (OIP) continued to provide a range of resources for federal agencies including policy guidance and training for agency personnel. OIP also managed the submission of agency reporting requirements and used these data to assess agency compliance with the FOIA as well as determine the need for additional resources to guide agencies.

The National Archives and Records Administration Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) also provided resources to both federal agencies and the general public, such as dispute resolution services.

In June 2018, GAO recommended that six agencies update their FOIA regulations as required by the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. As of February 2020, two agencies—National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Office of Management and Budget—have done so and officials from the four agencies that have not yet updated their regulations—the American Battle Monuments Commission, U.S. Agency for Global Media, Department of State, and U.S. African Development Foundation—told GAO they are taking steps to do so. Until these four agencies publish updated regulations that address the necessary requirements, as called for in FOIA and OIP guidance, they likely will be unable to provide the public with required regulatory and procedural information to ensure transparency and accountability in the government.

Why GAO Did This Study

FOIA, enacted into law more than 50 years ago, requires federal agencies to provide the public with access to government records and information based on the principles of openness and accountability in government. As required by law, 118 agencies reported their FOIA activities to the DOJ in fiscal year 2018. OIP, OGIS, and the Chief FOIA Officers Council each have roles supporting agency implementation of FOIA.

GAO was asked to review federal agencies' efforts to implement the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. This report provides information on (1) government-wide FOIA activity from FY 2012 through 2018, (2) steps OIP and OGIS have taken to assist agencies in implementing the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 since 2018, and (3) progress selected agencies have made on updating FOIA regulations since 2018.

GAO reviewed fiscal years 2012 through 2018 FOIA data; reviewed recent OIP and OGIS policies and guidance, and interviewed OIP and OGIS officials as well as officials from the six agencies GAO previously recommended update their regulations about the status of their efforts.

For more information, contact Michelle Sager at (202) 512-6806 or

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Compliance oversightFederal agenciesFreedom of informationFreedom of information requestsGovernment informationInformation managementInformation requestsNational archivesReporting requirementsBattle monuments