Secrecy Check: FOIA by the Numbers

We have said previously that the Department of Justice seems to view agency implementation of the Freedom of Information Act through rose-colored glasses. Each year, the Office of Information Policy (OIP) collects and summarizes agencies’ FOIA reports to give a look at the broader state of FOIA processing. Some of the FY 2012 data justifies DOJ’s rosy view, but there are notable exceptions.

The Basics:

In FY 2012, the federal government received and processed a record number of requests. The number of requests received increased by one percent, to 651,254. The number of requests processed in FY 2012 increased by an even greater percentage (five percent from FY 2011), and the number of requests processed exceeded those received by about two percent in FY 2012.

Agencies also decreased the overall FOIA backlog by 14 percent. The backlog is the number of requests that federal agencies have not responded to by the 20-day deadline set by the law.

Here’s how the numbers break down:

Fiscal Year

Number of FOIA Requests Received

Number of FOIA Requests Processed

Size of Backlog

2012

651254

665924

71790

2011

644165

631424

83490

2010

597415

600849

69526

2009

557825

612893

77377

* We are including statistics in this graph only from 2009 to present because prior to 2009 some agencies also included Privacy Act requests in their annual FOIA reports.

Notable: In last year’s summary, the Department of Justice highlighted the three years of steady decrease in the use of exemption 5. This trend came to a screeching halt in 2012—exemption 5 was used 23, 207 more times in FY 2012 than the previous year. 

Exemption 5 of the FOIA permits nondisclosure of “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.”  According to the Department of Justice FOIA handbook, the “most frequently invoked privileges incorporated in the exemption are the deliberative process privilege, attorney work-product privilege, and the attorney client privilege.”  

Administrative appeals (of withheld information) increased governmentwide by 11 percent, to 11, 899. Although the government overall processed 11, 789 appeals in 2012, the backlog of administrative appeals increased — but by less than 4 percent, to 3,120. 

A three-year trend of increasing FOIA staff governmentwide was broken as the number of full-time FOIA staff across government decreased by 7.5 percent in 2012. OIP largely attributes the decrease to a reduction of staff at the Department of Defense.

The amount of money spent processing FOIA requests overall decreased by approximately 1.7 percent to $405, 464,199.93. The amount spent per request fell by $44.65.

Year

Cost of Processing FOIA Requests

Number of Requests Processed

Cost /Request Processed

2010

$394,222,134.00

600849

$656.11

2011

$412,647,829.50

631424

$653.52

2012

$405,464,199.93

665924

$608.87

 

Submitted by apaulson on 06/10/2013