Freedom of Information Act backlogs soared at some key agencies after the public filed a record number of FOIA requests in fiscal 2022.
Agencies received 928,353 requests last year and processed 878,420 requests, both record highs, according to the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy. Agencies were required to upload their fiscal 2022 annual FOIA reports by March 1.
“Agencies will soon be posting their Chief FOIA Officer Reports, which provide helpful context to the statistics reported in the Annual FOIA Reports and detail agencies’ work in key areas of FOIA administration,” the Justice Department office wrote in a blog.
The Department of Homeland Security, which had pushed its backlog to a 10-year low in fiscal 2021, saw backlogged requests double in fiscal 2022 to 52,266 cases.
DHS received more than 542,000 FOIA requests and processed more than 500,000 requests last year, setting new records for the agency, according to its annual FOIA report.
Most FOIA requests at DHS are for people seeking their immigration records at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which saw 302,698 FOIA requests alone in fiscal 2022.
“In response to the surge in requests received in FY 2022, the DHS FOIA staff engaged in tremendous collaboration and coordination to provide strong customer service to the requester community,” the DHS Privacy Office wrote in the annual report.
ICE and USCIS “continued an agreement that streamlined the experience for individuals seeking personal immigration-related files.” Additionally, Secret Service staff stepped in to help USCIS with reviewing and closing backlogged files.
The Justice Department also saw its FOIA backlog rise, from 49,959 requests at the end of fiscal 2021 to 64,982 requests after fiscal 2022, according to its report. DOJ received 93,370 requests in fiscal 2022, second most out of any agency after DHS.
Meanwhile, the Defense Department’s FOIA backlog increased slightly over the course of fiscal 2022, from 17,597 backlogged requests at the beginning for the year to 18,567 at the end. DoD received 54,004 requests and processed 52,222 requests over the course of the year, according to its annual report.
The State Department’s FOIA backlog took a jump in fiscal 2022 to 18,765 backlogged requests, up from 14,941 the year before. State received 13,864 requests in fiscal 2022, but processed only 9,167 requests over that time period.
The National Archives and Records Administration, on the other hand, managed to keep it backlog steady despite receiving nearly double the amount of FOIA requests last year. NARA received 14,975 requests in fiscal 2022, up from 7,725 in fiscal 2021.
But NARA’s backlog stood at 9,969 requests at the end of fiscal 2022, two requests less than the previous year. NARA’s FOIA staff managed to process 14,977 requests in fiscal 2022, more than double compared to the year before.
Bobak Talebian, the head of the Office of Information Policy, said OIP is updating a FOIA self-assessment toolkit with new modules to help agencies better understand milestones for proactive disclosures; how technologies can be applied to FOIA; and other ways of complying with Attorney General FOIA guidelines issued last year.
“This is to make it easier for agencies to acquire FOIA technology, and in turn improve the efficiency and the consistency of processing requests,” Talebian said at a March 2 FOIA Advisory Committee meeting. “We believe having these standards will also help industry continue to innovate around the needs of the common needs of agencies and the requester community.”
Talebian also said OIP is planning this year to release an initial version of an interactive tool on FOIA.gov that will help the public navigate records requests. The tool could help requesters find documents that are already available publicly or find the right agency for a particular FOIA request, according to the national action plan.