Agencies fail to make the grade on FOIA requests

Sean Moulton, director of open government, Center for Effective Government

wfedstaff |

Nearly 50 years after passage of the Freedom of Information Act, federal agencies continue to struggle to release requested information to the public in a timely manner. That’s according a new report from the Center for Effective Government.

“FOIA is a valuable tool for allowing the public access to information, but agencies have struggled to implement the law,” CEG said, in the newly released Making the Grade: Access to Information Scorecard 2015. “This can make it challenging for citizens to actually use the power that FOIA provides them. FOIA requesters complain about long delays in receiving answers to their requests, inappropriate withholding of information, and unhelpful service by agencies. Despite ongoing efforts by the Obama administration and Congress to improve implementation of our key national disclosure law, consistent, sustained performance remains elusive.”

For the second year in a row, CEG looked at the performance of the 15 agencies that accounted for 90 percent of the FOIA requests the government received over the last two years. CEG focused on those agencies’ performance in three areas:

  • “The establishment of clear agency rules guiding the release of information and communication with those requesting information;
  • “The quality and “user-friendliness” of the agency’s FOIA website; and
  • “The timely, complete processing of requests for information.”

The results proved to be disappointing, to say the least. (See chart).

OVERALL GRADES
AGENCY SCORE
TOP PERFORMERS
Department of Agriculture 85% (B)
Social Security Administration 82% (B-)
MIDDLING PERFORMERS
Department of Justice 73% (C)
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 72% (C- )
National Archives and Records Administration 71% (C-)
LOWEST PERFORMERS
Homeland Security Department 69% (D+)
Department of Transportation 68% (D+)
Department of the Treasury 68% (D+)
Environmental Protection Agency 67% (D)
Department of Veterans Affairs 64% (D)
Department of Labor 63% (D)
Department of Defense 61% (D-)
Securities and Exchange Commission 61% (D-)
Department of Health and Human Services 57% (F)
Department of State 37% (F)

None of the 15 agencies received an overall exemplary score of an “A”, and only two agencies earned a “B” — the Department of Agriculture and the Social Security Administration. Three agencies scored in the mid-range — the Department of Justice (C), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (C) and the National Archives and Records Administration (C-) — while the remaining 10 agencies received below average or failing grades.

TOP PERFORMERS Processing Requests Disclosure Rules FOIA Websites Total Score Overall Grade
Department of Agriculture 94% 83% 60% 85% B
Social Security Administration 98% 46% 70% 82% B-

As the top performing agency, USDA scored well in its processing of FOIA requests and for its disclosure rules, but its website still needed work.

“The Department of Agriculture made a real jump this year compared to the score they got last year, and we were very impressed with it,” Sean Moulton, CEG’s director of open government policy, told Federal Drive with Tom Temin Tuesday morning. “They moved up 10 points. Last year, they were right in the middle of the road C, but they moved up to a B. Looking at all their numbers and what they did, I would say one of the big things is they did put more resources towards this. They put basically a 30 percent increase in their staff from last year to this year, brought down the per-person caseload of requests that they were processing and they were able to respond more quickly, get more information`out the door. It really improved their processing score dramatically.”

This year’s runner-up, SSA, was the top performing agency in last year’s scorecard. “The SSA again performed exceptionally well at processing FOIA requests but earned a middling score for its website and a failing score for agency FOIA handling rules,” the report said.

“They handle a high number of requests,” Moulton said, of SSA. “They’re lucky that a lot of their requests are quite simple, people just requesting Social Security records of a relative, a deceased family member or something like that, and they’ve learned how to do them very quickly, but they’ve been doing a good job, very consistently, and they deserve credit for that.”

MIDDLING PERFORMERS Processing Requests Disclosure Rules FOIA Websites Total Score Overall Grade
Department of Justice 55% 100% 100% 73% C
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 67% 96% 65% 72% C-
National Archives and Records Administration 57% 100% 85% 71% C-

Although DoJ scored a perfect 100 in both its disclosure rules and FOIA website, its poor processing of FOIA requests pulled its grade down to a C. EEOC and NARA had poor website and processing scores. If the three agencies focused on improving their processing of FOIA requests and improving their websites where necessary, they could bring their scores up to an A or a B next year, CEG said in its report.

LOWEST PERFORMERS Processing Requests Disclosure Rules FOIA Websites Total Score Overall Grade
Homeland Security Department 51% 92% 100% 69% D+
Department of Transportation 63% 88% 65% 68% D+
Environmental Protection Agency 52% 88% 90% 67% D
Department of Veterans Affairs 51% 100% 65% 64% D
Department of Labor 49% 92% 75% 63% D
Department of Defense 55% 42% 100% 61% D
Securities and Exchange Commission 65% 63% 50% 61% D-
Department of Health and Human Services 60% 38% 65% 57% F
Department of State 23% 33% 80% 37% F

Of the low-scoring agencies, the Homeland Security and Defense departments posted perfect 100s for their websites, while the Veterans Affairs Department earned a 100 for its disclosure rules. Poor performances in other areas dragged down the overall grades for these agencies.

The departments of Health and Human Services and State were the two agencies that posted failing grades on CEG’s FOIA scorecard.

“The Department of State score (37 percent) was particularly dismal,” the report said. “While its website is a bright spot for the agency (with a solid 80 percent on that sub-score), its 23 percent processing score is completely out of line with any other agency’s performance.”

Moulton said State’s poor performance this year and last as an indication of a systemic problem at the agency when it comes to processing FOIA requests.

“There’s a huge gap between them and the next lowest performing agency overall,” he said. “Most of the agencies that you saw were on a scale. They were toward the bottom end of the scale, but we saw agencies that did slightly better and slightly better and slightly better. But the State Department was in a class by themselves.”

Moulton attributed the low scores across the board as a combination of things, starting with how resources are allocated.

“If you’re seeing this as some sort of add-on process that you just have to do, you’re required to do it and it’s not part of your real job as an agency, then you’re always going to give it short shrift,” he said. “You’re going to need staff to process these requests quickly. State Department knows that it handles a lot of sensitive information and they’re going to need more staff to review this material closely in order to decide what’s going to be released and not released.”

Another aspect of the problem is just setting up processes that allow an agency to do things more quickly, whether it’s determining what information can be proactively released before requests come in or establishing better systems to streamline the review process.

On the bright side, eight agencies raised their overall scores from last year’s scorecard, with DHS, Labor and USDA making significant improvements.

“Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Agriculture picked up much higher scores due to improved central FOIA websites,” the report said. “The Department of Agriculture’s improved score is entirely based on much stronger processing of requests in 2013.”

RELATED STORIES:

Agencies receive failing grades for processing FOIA requests

Obama administration looks to standardize agencies’ FOIA regulations

Comments

Sign up for breaking news alerts