Report: Agencies Failing at FOIA

Half of federal agencies have failed to meet transparency obligations

Attorney General Eric Holder / AP
• March 11, 2014 4:00 pm


Half of the federal agencies handling the bulk of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests are failing at their transparency obligations, a government watchdog group reported Monday.

The Center for Effective Government surveyed the 15 federal agencies handling 90 percent of FOIA requests and found none of them were performing well.

No agency earned an overall "A" grade, and seven received failing grades.

"The fact that no agency achieved a top grade across all three areas illustrates the difficulty agencies are having with implementation overall," Katherine McFate, president of the Center for Effective Government, told McClatchyDC. "Agencies face a variety of challenges, depending on their request loads, the kind of information they manage, and the manpower they have available to do the job. But there is clearly much room for improvement."

The Center for Effective Government measured agencies’ performance in three areas: processing requests, establishing rules, and creating user-friendly websites.

The report was cited in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday on reforming the Freedom of Information Act.

"We are moving in the right direction, but stubborn impediments to the FOIA process remain in place and progress has come much too slow," Judiciary chairman Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) said. "I am concerned that the growing trend towards relying upon FOIA exemptions to withhold large swaths of government information is hindering the public’s right to know."

However, testifying before the Judiciary Committee, the director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy, Melanie Pustay, said federal agencies had improved their FOIA performance.

"Based on our initial review of those reports for 2014 and our review of agency Annual FOIA Reports for Fiscal Year 2013, it is clear that agencies have persevered through a difficult year of limited resources and tough fiscal times to meet the ever-increasing demands of their FOIA administration and to continue to improve public access to information," Pustay said.

Pustay said agencies continued to decrease their backlog of FOIA requests and improve their websites.

Pustay also said that, in addition to the Obama administration’s two-year "Open Government National Action Plan," the Justice Department is working with agencies to modernize their FOIA offices and establish the best practices across the federal government.

President Barack Obama pledged to run "the most transparent administration" in history when he took office, and has often repeated this line throughout his time in office, but transparency advocates say Obama’s reforms have fallen flat.

Daniel Metcalfe, a law professor and executive director of the Collaboration on Government Secrecy at the American University Washington College of Law, told the Judiciary Committee that the transparency community "has been disappointed by the surprising inadequacies of the Obama Administration’s implementation of new FOIA policy."

The House unanimously passed a bipartisan FOIA reform bill last month introduced by Oversight Committee leaders Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D., Md.).

There is currently no Senate version of the bill.