FOIA.gov Fails to “Shine a Light”

Over a year and a half after the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that its Open Government Flagship Initiative would be to "launch a Web site that collects cross‐government data about agency [Freedom of Information Act] FOIA performance and presents it in an easy‐to‐understand, interactive format," the site, FOIA.gov, fails to meet that promise. Despite useful bells and whistles, the site is beset with technical glitches and low quality data.

There is a lot to like about FOIA.gov – especially for FOIA requesters. For example, as we've pointed out before, the information under the site's "Learn" tab does a commendable job of explaining FOIA and assisting users in making requests (the FAQ page in particular is packed with great information). The Office of Information Policy (OIP), which manages FOIA.gov, has also added a "Find" tab that integrates the improved USA.gov search function to make it easy for requesters to see if the information they want is already available. The site is nowhere close, though, to meeting users expectations, or DOJ's own goals.

According to DOJ's Open Government Plan:

The FOIA Dashboard will apply the principles of transparency and openness to the administration of the FOIA itself, allowing the public to easily track information about FOIA compliance. The Dashboard will allow the public to generate statistics on FOIA compliance across the government and from year to year. Not only will this visual report card itself promote transparency, but it should also have the effect of encouraging FOIA offices across the government to “race to the top” to improve their compliance efforts. By shining a light on critical FOIA metrics such as numbers of requests processed, size of agency backlogs, numbers of requests resulting in releases either in full or in part, and allowing easy comparison between agencies, the Dashboard will serve as a powerful motivator for agencies to improve timeliness, reduce backlogs, and release as much information to the public under FOIA as possible.

The FOIA Dashboard, as laid out in the Open Government Plan, would be a major boon for Congressional overseers, journalists, researchers, advocates and any member of the public who is simply interested in knowing how the government is implementing the FOIA. It should make it easy to see how well– or poorly– agencies are meeting their obligation under the law to answer public requests for information. By sparking a "race to the top," this public information should encourage agencies to reduce backlogs, send requesters information faster, make more partial releases, etc. Given, the site does currently enable users to generate and compare FOIA statistics for several agencies and components. The statistics are essentially meaningless though. As we reported in a recent analysis of federal FOIA data with our partner Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), they are based on unreliable and incomplete data.

For our report, we attempted to use FOIA.gov to compare FOIA compliance statistics from the last fiscal year of the Bush Administration with the first full year of the Obama Administration for fifteen large agencies. Multiple errors on FOIA.gov and differences from the data found in annual agency FOIA reports with data on the site made it nearly impossible to determine whether or not agencies had responded to the Obama Administration's change in FOIA policy.

Until DOJ addresses issues with the site and the data quality FOIA.gov cannot fulfill its purpose. Below are suggestions we included in our report for making FOIA.gov more credible and improving data quality.

Suggestions for Improving FOIA.gov:

  • DOJ should conduct a full audit of the site.
  • To restore public confidence in FOIA.gov, DOJ should post on the site a list of all known problems and a schedule for when the problems will be resolved. Such a list should include both technical glitches, such as incorrect additions, and data quality problems, such as missing data.
  • DOJ should add a transparent system for the users to report problems with the site.

Suggestions for Improving Data Quality:

  • The Office of Information Policy (OIP) should provide additional training and guidance for agency personnel responsible for preparing annual reports.
  • Chief FOIA Officers, positions created by the OPEN Government Act of 2007 to inject more accountability into the FOIA processing system by giving FOIA responsibilities to a high-ranking agency official, should be required to sign-off on all annual reports.
  • OIP and/or the recently created Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) should audit agency annual reports. Audit results should be posted on FOIA.gov, sent to agency head, Chief FOIA officers, and other relevant administration officials and congressional committees.

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