Agencies opening up slowly under FOIA mandate

The Justice Department\'s new report finds that the number of partial documents released last year increased by 50,000. Many agencies also reduced their backlog...

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The Small Business Administration and the IRS used inter-office communication. The Interior Department and the Institute of Museum and Library Service created specific task forces. And the Commerce Department requires a senior official to sign-off on the release of documents.

These are just three examples of how agencies went about meeting the White House’s mandate to be more open and transparent when it comes to releasing documents and meeting Freedom of Information Act requests.

The Justice Department released the 2010 governmentwide FOIA report detailing these and many other steps agencies took over the last year.

“There is a tremendous amount of focus being put on FOIA and compliance from the President and the Attorney General on down,” says Melanie Pustay, Justice’s Director of the Office of Information Policy, which released the report. “I think focus on issue leading to concrete results.”

Pustay says a number of findings stand out to her.

First, she says, the fact that the number of partial requested records released increased by 50,000 over 2008 to 170,000.

Overall, however, the number of full releases dropped by 45,000 last year to 215,124.

“The number of full releases went down because agencies increased the amount of information they proactively posted instead of waiting for a request,” Pustay says. “Those documents typically would have been full release so I’m not surprised full releases went down. It means the requests that remain are typically more difficult requests and it takes more detailed processing to get more releases out at least in part.”

Still, Justice found that 61 out of 91 agencies reported increases in either their full or partial releases. The Homeland Security Department increased their full and partial releases by 5,000, while Justice saw an uptick of about 800 total.

Pustay says for agencies to increase the amount of releases Justice recommends using a two-step process to release more documents: the first an specific review is necessary to see if the document in full could be made public; and the second if not the full document, then how about parts of the record.

She says 39 agencies used this two-step process to increase the number of discretionary releases they had in 2009.

Another area where agencies found success was in reducing the backlog of FOIA requests.

Justice found agencies reduced the backlog of requests to 77,377 in 2009 from 133,295. Justice says 12 agencies saw decreases of more than 100 requests, while DHS reduced its backlog by 6,000, down to 12,406.

“This has been a traditional area where agencies struggle,” Pustay says. “Two-thirds of all agencies decreased or have no backlog. That is a tremendous improvement. Next year hoping to see greater drop in backlogs.”

At the same time, 36 agencies did report an increase in their backlog of FOIA requests, ranging from 42 to 4,457.

The most common reasons for having a backlog is agencies are receiving more requests and those requests are more complex than in the past.

“One of best practices that we’ve found from looking a chief FOIA officer reports is having ongoing monitoring of backlogs by having high level attention and monitoring of the problem,” Pustay says. “It is a good way to bring attention and help address it.”

Agencies relied on increased staffing, improved technology, training and more oversight as ways to decrease the backlogs, Justice states.

Pustay says this was the first year the FOIA report looked at how agencies are using technology in collecting and processing FOIA requests.

She says she was pleasantly surprised that 89 of 94 agencies receive FOIA requests electronically; 86 agencies track requests electronically and use technology to process requests.

“I was very happy to see overwhelmingly that agencies had sufficient IT support to meet their FOIA needs and that is a key to making process work well,” Pustay says. “That issue had been cited as challenge to being effective in the past.”

Agencies also are using social networking to reach citizens.

Justice says agencies are using FaceBook, YouTube, Twitter and RSS feeds the most to reach citizens with Flickr, podcasts and blogs also receiving a fair amount of use.

“With social media, we are asking agencies to look for new ways to be transparent,” she says. “It can be a starting point for being more creative.”

Pustay says the report provides agencies with several best practices and lessons learned to improve how they process FOIA requests and make information public. She says Justice will collect the 2010 report next March during Sunshine week, and guidance is expected in the coming months.

“I felt like we had success in all areas and it’s very promising to me the progress agencies are making,” she says. “Where I would like to see more success is in the number of releases by agencies. Agencies increased by 50,000 last year, but I think we could do more. It’s hard to say how much more, but it’s an important indicator of transparency.”

(Copyright 2010 by All Rights Reserved.)

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