Federal Agencies Get Poor Marks on Sunshine Week Scorecards

Watchdog gives Education, Homeland Security, and Treasury ‘F’ grade

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March 16, 2015

Despite President Obama’s pledge to run the "most transparent administration in history," federal agencies are still struggling to meet White House benchmarks, and at least three ignored Freedom of Information Act reporting requirements, according to several recent reports released in conjunction with Sunshine Week.

The government watchdog group Cause of Action released a Freedom of Information Act report card for 15 federal agencies that receive the bulk of all FOIA requests. Six of the 15 agencies received failing grades. Three agencies—the Departments of Education, Homeland Security and Treasury—earned "F" grades for failing to comply with the law’s annual reporting requirements.

"Our oversight mission—which focuses on transparency, and accountability in the Federal government—depends upon agency compliance with FOIA," Cause of Action executive director Dan Epstein said in a statement. "Based on our findings over the past three years, Cause of Action has no reason to believe that agency performance under FOIA has improved, which is simply unacceptable to taxpayers who deserve a government that operates in the open."

A FOIA scorecard by the Center for Effective Government on Friday gave even worse grades to the 15 agencies. Ten of the 15 agencies received failing grades. However, the center noted that this was actually an improvement, with eight of the agencies improving their performance over the previous years.

"Despite these improvements, federal agencies are still struggling to effectively and consistently implement public disclosure rules," the Center for Effective Government wrote.

The State Department, which has been at the heart of the Hillary Clinton email scandal, came in for particularly hard treatment. The department received an "F" and "D" in the Cause of Action and Center for Effective Government scorecards, respectively.

The State Department is currently being inundated with FOIA lawsuits following the disclosure that former secretary of state Hillary Clinton exclusively used a private email address during her tenure at the department.

Besides FOIA compliance, agencies are also lagging in other areas. An audit by the National Security Archive released Friday found that only 40 percent of agencies have followed laws requiring them to post records released through FOIA in their electronic reading rooms.

"The presumption of openness requires the presumption of posting," Tom Blanton, the archive’s director, said in a statement. "For the new generation, if it’s not online, it does not exist."

This was the only area where the State Department was positively noted. The National Security Archive commended the department "for its proactive posting of over 100,000 documents requested under the FOIA, which it updates quarterly. (One positive from Secretary Clinton’s ‘emailgate’ is that the State Department library will allow excellent search and browsing capabilities!)"

The watchdog groups released the reports in conjunction with Sunshine Week, an annual event highlighting the importance of government transparency.