Improving Oversight of FOIA Processing

In March 2011 the Department of Justice's Office of Information Policy (OIP) launched a website, FOIA.gov, with the purpose of making it easier for the public to track and compare annual FOIA processing statistics. A recent report from Government Accountability Office (GAO), finds that the data on FOIA.gov is generally a reliable match to data in agency reports, though some technical issues (which we've discussed before call into question the completeness of some reports. What the GAO study does not take into account, however, is whether the data agencies are turning into OIP are reliable and if the data points are useful indicators of how well an agency is meeting its obligations to answer public requests for information.

The quality and utility of agency annual FOIA reports came up last year in a study we authored with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) last year. What began as an effort to use FOIA statistics as a tool to compare processing under different Administrations, became in large part an assessment of the problems on FOIA.gov and the related data, including basic math errors, typographical errors, and inconsistent year-to-year reporting. We have suggested some steps to improve the data, including audits by OIP and the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), having a senior official sign-off on the accuracy and completeness of the reports, and additional OIP trainings.

We have also made some suggestions for modifying or adding new data points in order to improve public understanding of FOIA processing and oversight. Below are some of our primary recommendations:

  • Data relating to the (OGIS) — including relevant data points include how many cases are opened and how many times agencies refer requesters to OGIS.
  • Data on the number of times agencies change initial determinations on fee waivers. Over the last few years, FOIA requesters and litigators have noted an uptick in the denial of fee waivers by agencies for requesters who meet FOIA’s eligibility requirements for fee waivers.
  • Modify the “Processing Time” metric. The current metric is unclear on agency search time for responsive material, and response preparation, and does not specify when people outside the agency are responsible for delays. The new metric should list, in numbers of days: (1) the “Total Processing Time,” the days since the date the request was received; (2) “User Delay,” the days the case was on hold while the agency waited to hear from requester; (3) “Consult Delay,” the days the agency waited to hear back from another agency on a consult; and (4) “Referral Delay,” the days it took an agency to act on a referral made to it.

The ultimate usefulness of FOIA.gov as an accountability tool depends on the quality of data on the site, and whether or not it is tracking the right data points. We look forward to working with our partners and the government to improve oversight of the process.

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