Agencies Earn Poor Grades For FOIA Handling

Open government policies and IT advances haven't translated into better responses to Freedom of Information Act requests, says the Center for Effective Government.

Despite the US government's efforts to increase access to public information and expectations that technology would help, federal agencies are having a hard time processing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and sharing information with citizens via their websites, according to a report released by the Center for Effective Government (CEG).

The report, "Making the Grade: Access to Information Scorecard 2014," found that agencies have consistently failed to implement the FOIA, a law passed almost 50 years ago to give Americans greater access to government records. The CEG evaluated 15 agencies that received more than 90% of all FOIA requests, based on three performance areas: speed and completeness in processing requests, disclosure rules, and the usefulness of agency websites. None of the agencies earned a top overall grade of an A, and half got failing grades.

Only eight agencies passed, earning grades of 60 or more out of 100 points. The Social Security Administration (SSA) was the top performer with a B grade (83%). It was best at processing FOIA requests. Less than 1% of its requests were backlogged, and the average response time was under the required 20 business days. The SSA, however, earned low scores for its rules and website.

[An Open Data Policy is a good step, but agencies need to do more to liberate their data. Here are six suggestions: How Government Can Make Open Data Work.]

The Department of Justice (DOJ) earned the second-highest grade, B- (81%), for having a solid website and an effective policy on withholding information. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came in third with a C+ (78%), also earning the best scores for its rules and website. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) got a C (77%), joining the DOJ and EPA as the only three agencies to receive passing marks in all the areas examined.

The CEG gave four agencies -- the Department of Defense, Securities and Exchange Commission, Department of Transportation, and Department of the Treasury -- a failing grade because they missed most of the criteria for their websites, specifically having weak electronic reading rooms. Agencies are required to have electronic reading rooms, which are also known as FOIA libraries, on their websites to provide the public with information about previously released documents.

Allowing the public to file and track requests electronically should be a basic part of agency sites, the CEG said. While many agencies allow online submissions for FOIA requests, most don't have online tracking available. The report recommended that agencies deploy open-source or off-the-shelf technology to enable full online services for site visitors. It also recommended agencies streamline processing workflows, disclose information more proactively, and train staff to reduce the use of exemptions.

The report also pointed to the Obama administration's efforts to build a government-wide FOIA portal. In December, the administration introduced nearly two dozen plans to improve the government's interaction with citizens, as part of the Second Open Government National Action Plan (NAP). The new NAP proposed the creation of a consolidated request portal where citizens can file a request for any agency, while standardizing FOIA regulations and establishing common practices across agencies.

The House of Representatives also helped advance FOIA modernization efforts when it approved HR 1211, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2014, on Feb. 26. The bill aims to strengthen the FOIA process to increase transparency and accountability in government. Among other improvements, the FOIA Act specifies the "existence of one free website," which would be used for submitting requests and for receiving automated information on the status of FOIA requests.

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