Government lags in providing public records to media, others

The federal government is falling short in making public records readily available under the Freedom of Information Act, according to a study by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government.

The recently completed study showed that 25 federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Securities and Exchange Commission, have made little progress in reducing their record backlog of FOIA requests, despite a 2006 directive from the White House to reduce delays.

 The percentage of FOIA requests that remained uncompleted at year end was reduced slightly, from 39 percent in 2006 to 33 percent last year, but the study indicates that the reduction stemmed largely from a decrease in requests rather than improvements in service. The CJOG found that the combined federal agencies received 63,000 fewer, but only processed 2100 more requests than in 2006.
The greatest backlogs were found at the Department of State (85 percent backlogged), Department of Homeland Security (62 percent backlogged), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (55 percent backlogged).

The median processing time for a request was found to exceed the legal FOIA deadlines in fifteen of the twenty-five agencies studied. Fifteen of the agencies were slower than last year to respond to “simple” requests, and thirteen were slower at processing “complex” requests. Twenty-one of the agencies missed the twenty-day processing deadline for more than half of processed requests.

Of the requests that were processed, fewer were actually granted. 40% of records requests were not granted, the highest percentage since agency reporting began in 1998. The study also found that records appeals were granted at the lowest levels in ten years.
Despite the presidential order to improve public access to records, spending on FOIA requests has been reduced $7 million within the past year, and FOIA staffs were reduced by 209 positions.

A June report from the Department of Justice painted a different picture of the status of FOIA requests, claiming “remarkable improvements” in backlogs and request processing at federal agencies. The report points to the agencies’ reduced backlog and high volume incoming requests as evidence that the agencies are improving service.

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