Agencies: Record-setting FOIA backlog out of control

By Sean McCalley
Federal News Radio

Federal agencies defended their efforts to reduce the backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests on Capitol Hill, saying the process is becoming smoother and more efficient.

Some agencies are just receiving tens of thousands more requests than usual.

“Since 2008, our case load increased over 300 percent,” said Joyce Barr, assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Administration, in a Senate Judiciary committee hearing Wednesday. “In fiscal year 2008, the State Department received fewer than 6,000 new FOIA requests. In fiscal year 2014, we received nearly 20,000.”

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The State Department is one of six agencies that accounts for about 90 percent of the entire federal backlog of FOIA requests. Its individual case load stands at 10,045 requests.

The other five agencies are:

  • Homeland Security Department (103,480)
  • National Archives and Records Administration (9,361)
  • Justice Department (8,939)
  • Defense Department (8,444)
  • Health and Human Services Department (7,195)

Barr added some special circumstances exist that make the FOIA process more difficult for some agencies.

“The State Department is often the public’s main destination for information and documents related to national security issues,” Barr said. “Other national security agencies are partially, if not completely, exempt from the FOIA. As a result, requesters often come only to the department to request information on any and all national security issues.”

Boosting FOIA compliance

Federal agencies are getting better at processing FOIA requests, despite record numbers of incoming cases and shrinking staffs. The almost 4,000 people dedicated to processing requests “is the lowest reported staffing level in the last six fiscal years,” the report said.

Last year, governmentwide FOIA staffs fell by almost 9 percent, or 558 people.

At the same time, the total backlog of FOIA requests grew for the second straight year. But the 70 percent spike in FY 2014 easily dwarfs any year-to-year increase over the last half decade. The silver lining, said Melanie Ann Pustay, the director of DOJ’s Office of Information Policy, is FOIA processors are getting faster and more efficient at their jobs.

“OIP has, for a number of years, encouraged agencies to focus on their simple track requests with the goal of processing them within an average of 20 working days,” Pustay said. “I’m pleased to report that this last fiscal year, the government’s overall average was 20.5 days.”

According to DOJ’s report, 29 of 100 agencies don’t have any backlog at all, and 59 agencies have a backlog of fewer than 10 requests.

One way agencies are successfully meeting FOIA compliance measures without having to even start an official case, is to simply post information online.

“Agencies continue to proactively post a wide variety of information online in open formats,” Pustay said. “They’re making discretionary releases of otherwise exempt information, and they’re using technology to improve FOIA administration.”

She added OIP is aggressively pursuing a compliance training program, so FOIA processors understand the law and the policy implications it has on their agency.

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