Almost three months after the Department of Justice (DOJ) launched FOIA.gov, the site is still far from delivering on its mission of increasing the public’s knowledge about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the process the federal government to process these requests. In fact, thanks to technical glitches and data quality issues, the site currently paints a misleading picture about how well – or not so well – the government is meeting its obligation to answer public requests for information.
The resources available under the site’s "Learn" tab do a commendable job of explaining FOIA and assisting users in making requests (the FAQ page in particular is packed with great information). The "dashboard" or "data" section of the website, which lets users view and compare particular FOIA processing statistics, is less enlightening, however.
OpenTheGovernment.org and our partners strongly support the concept of a FOIA dashboard — in fact, we asked DOJ to set up the dashboard. For years DOJ has been gathering key statistics on compliance with FOIA from each agency. These statistics include: the size of the agency’s backlog, the number of times the agency used each of FOIA’s nine exemptions to deny a request, how much money the agency spent of processing FOIA requests, and processing time. Putting these statistics up on a public website where users could easily look at an agency’s performance from year to year and compare it to other agencies would make it easier to point out bright spots and spot troubling indicators.
One of the problems with the current version of FOIA.gov is apparent on the landing page. Two of the charts under "FOIA at a Glance" are meant to compare the government-wide total of requests received and backlog in Fiscal Year (FY) 2008, 2009, and 2010; if, however, you move your mouse over the little blue question mark with "What Do These Charts Mean?" written beside it, you learn that the data for 2008 and 2009 are incomplete. Essentially, because a different number of agencies are included in each year’s "total," the charts are comparing apples to oranges. As more complete data is added to the site, this issue will be less meaningful and troubling.
Another problem that DOJ continues to work through are a number of technical glitches that give users incomplete or down-right wrong pictures of FOIA processing. For example, earlier this year I used FOIA.gov’s Advanced Report tool (found on this page) to create a chart comparing the total cost of processing requests across all agencies in 2010. The chart displayed a breakdown by agency for processing costs, litigation-related costs, and total costs. I was surprised, to say the least, when in the "grand total" the cost associated just with processing were higher than the reported "grand-grand total." DOJ was aware of the issue and told me they were working to fix it. In the meantime, I was better off downloading the data into a spreadsheet and then using a formula to sum the numbers. Other charts I have created are misleading because if an agency chose to leave an entry blank rather than enter a "0," the data will not show up at all. This problem is especially apparent if you try to compare use of exemptions across agencies. DOJ knows about this problem, too, and assures me it will be less of a problem in future data.
We believe FOIA.gov can be a powerful tool for public oversight of agencies’ compliance with FOIA. Now that the data is easily available to the public, we can "fame and shame" agencies into doing better. DOJ should be commended for putting the site up, but FOIA.gov will never be as useful a tool as it should be until they get it right.