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Summary of Annual FOIA Reports for Fiscal Year 1999

Under the provisions of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-231, all federal departments and agencies must prepare more detailed annual reports of their FOIA activities, on a fiscal-year basis, than were prepared in previous years. See 5 U.S.C. 552(e) (2000). The Department of Justice has issued formal guidelines and a standard format to be used for this purpose, see FOIA Update, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, at 3-7 ("Guidelines for Agency Preparation and Submission of Annual FOIA Reports"), and it has issued supplemental guidance to facilitate this annual reporting process as well, see FOIA Post, "Supplemental Guidance on Annual FOIA Reports" (posted 8/13/01). As is indicated in that supplemental guidance, the Office of Information and Privacy is compiling governmentwide summaries of the information contained in annual FOIA reports, which is possible only after all agencies have completed their reports for each fiscal year. See id.

The following is a summary compilation of information contained in the annual FOIA reports that were prepared by the fourteen federal departments and by sixty-eight other federal agencies for fiscal year 1999.

Number of Requests Received

The total number of Freedom of Information Act/Privacy Act access requests received by all federal departments and agencies in fiscal year 1999 was 1,965,919. This was a much larger number of requests than the number received in previous fiscal years, largely due to the reclassification of first-party access requests as FOIA requests throughout the many facilities of the Department of Veterans Affairs during fiscal year 1999.

Of all federal departments, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported the largest number of requests received, 1,151,326, which includes first-party access requests made by recipients of VA services. Among the other cabinet-level agencies, the Department of Justice received the second-highest number of requests, with 230,492, and the Department of Defense's number was third highest, at 98,338.

Among all other agencies, the Social Security Administration topped the list with 139,029 requests received. Of particular note is that the Social Security Administration reported that its experience with the development of the World Wide Web was directly opposite to that reported by other agencies. Generally, other agencies noted in their fiscal year 1999 annual reports that the posting of information of public interest on their Web sites had resulted in a decrease of incoming access requests. At the Social Security Administration, however, the number of requests almost tripled, from 55,886 in fiscal year 1998 to 139,029 in fiscal year 1999, due to another aspect of the World Wide Web. In the annual report section entitled "Comparisons with Previous Year(s)," the Social Security Administration addressed this increase and explained that it was "driven by genealogists and the growing number of commercial [I]nternet sites that are 'advertising' the availability of [copies of original applications for Social Security numbers at that agency]."

The federal departments reporting the fewest numbers of requests received during fiscal year 1999 were the Department of Education, with 1728 requests, and the Department of Commerce, with 2084 requests. Among other agencies, those with the fewest requests were the Farm Credit System Insurance Corporation and the National Counterintelligence Center, neither of which reported receiving any requests during the fiscal year.

Backlog Reduction

Within recent years, agencies have been making efforts to reduce their backlogs of FOIA requests, and those efforts can be reflected in their individual annual FOIA reports. Overall, the total number of requests pending at federal departments and agencies as of the end of fiscal year 1999 was 156,429, which is a twenty percent increase over the previous year; as of the end of fiscal year 1998, the number had been 130,657.

Departments reporting a decrease in their backlogs from fiscal year 1998 to fiscal year 1999 were the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor, the Department of State, and the Department of the Treasury. These percentage reductions ranged from two to twenty-five percent. Twenty-seven other federal agencies showed a decrease in their backlogs as well. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation and the United States Postal Service showed the greatest percentage reductions, 52% and 27%, respectively.

Twelve federal agencies had no access requests pending as of the beginning of the fiscal year, then processed all incoming requests during the year, and thereby maintained that zero balance as of the end of the year. Of these, the agencies that processed the greatest number of requests were the Corporation for National Service (64), the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (58), the Surface Transportation Board (49), and the National Mediation Board (46).

Disposition of Requests

For eleven of the fourteen federal departments, the number of "total grants" of their access requests was more than half of the number of requests processed. The only departments for which this was not the case were the Department of Justice, the Department of Labor, and the Department of State -- which may be seen as a reflection of the sensitivity of the information requested from these departments. Among all federal agencies, there was an even split between those agencies that had "total grants" for more than half of the requests processed and those that did not. In sum, the total number of access requests processed by all federal agencies during fiscal year 1999 was 1,939,668, which exceeded the number of requests processed during the preceding fiscal year by 1,012,594.

Agencies may withhold information under one or more of the FOIA's nine exemptions or respond to requests by citing "other reasons for nondisclosure." Such reasons include such categories as "no records," referrals, "request withdrawn," a fee-related reason, "records not reasonably described," "not a proper FOIA request for some other reason," "not an agency record," and "duplicate request." Nearly 75% of all departments and agencies cited "no records" as the most-often-used such reason for nondisclosure.

Use of Exemptions

The exemption used most often was Exemption 6, to protect matters of personal privacy. This statistical count, though, includes a complete breakdown of all individually distinct exemptions and accordingly treats each subsection of Exemption 7 as a separate exemption. If Exemption 7's subparts were added together, the total would be almost twice that of Exemption 6. Additionally, under Exemption 3 of the Act, agencies withheld information pursuant to a total of 142 different nondisclosure statutes, all of which were required to be specified by agencies in their annual FOIA reports.

Appeals of Initial Denials of Requests

The Department of Justice reported the largest number of appeals of initial denials of access requests: It received 5005 administrative appeals during fiscal year 1999. Among cabinet-level agencies, the Department of the Treasury received the second-highest number of appeals, with 2005, and the Department of Defense received the third-highest, with 1091.

Among all other agencies, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission topped the list with 373 administrative appeals, followed by the Central Intelligence Agency, with 195, and the United States Postal Service, with 189. On the other hand, no fewer than twenty-one agencies reported that they did not receive any administrative appeals in fiscal year 1999, and an additional twenty agencies reported receiving five or fewer appeals during the year.

Median Number of Days to Process Requests

Eight departments reported that they processed simple requests in twenty or fewer working days, expressed in agencywide median numbers. Five departments processed complex requests in thirty or fewer days. Some departments, such as the Department of Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of the Treasury, did not report a single, agencywide median of the number of days taken to process requests. These departments are divided into components or subagencies, each of which handles its own FOIA processing on a decentralized basis and reports its FOIA statistics accordingly. Overall, only about twenty-five percent of agencies reported that their median processing time was greater than twenty days. Of the agencies that used multitrack processing, all but six reported a median processing time for complex requests of thirty days or more.

With respect to the median number of days that requests were pending as of the end of the fiscal year, among cabinet-level agencies the Department of Veterans Affairs reported the lowest number, at twelve days. The highest number was the Department of Housing and Urban Development's, which reported that the median number of days that requests were pending at that department was 758. Only eleven federal agencies reported that the median number of days that their requests were pending as of the end of the year was greater than fifty.

In total, departments and agencies granted requests for expedited processing more than 25,000 times, with the Department of Veterans Affairs granting the highest number of such requests by a wide margin. The next highest numbers of such grants were reported by the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Staffing Levels

A total of 4981.78 employee work-years were devoted to the administration of the FOIA throughout the federal government during fiscal year 1999. Among cabinet-level agencies, the Department of Justice reported the greatest number of FOIA work-years, at 1046.58. The Department of Defense reported the second-highest number, at 776.29, and the Department of Veterans Affairs reported a number that was nearly 500. The department with the smallest number of FOIA employees (expressed in aggregate work-years) was the Department of Education, with 10.7, followed by the Department of Commerce, with 18.87, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, with 28.

Among all federal agencies, forty-seven reported having five or fewer FOIA employees during the fiscal year. On the other hand, among the noncabinet agencies with the largest numbers of FOIA employees were the Environmental Protection Agency, with 623, the Small Business Administration, with 183, and the Social Security Administration, with 110.6.

Costs

For fiscal year 1999, the total cost of all FOIA-related activities for all federal departments and agencies, as reported in their annual FOIA reports, was $286,546,488. Nearly eight million dollars of this was reported as spent on litigation-related activities. Of total agency costs, only $6,121,455 (or 2.1%) was reported to have been recouped by the government through FOIA fees.

The federal department with the highest total costs was the Department of Veterans Affairs, which reported spending more than eighty-nine million dollars on FOIA-related activities during fiscal year 1999. Second was the Department of Justice, at more than fifty-nine million dollars, and third was the Department of Defense, at more than thirty-two million dollars. The federal department that reported spending the least amount of money on the FOIA was the Department of Education, at just over a half-million dollars. Also at the lower end of reported FOIA costs were the Department of Housing and Urban Department, which spent slightly more than one million dollars, and the Department of Commerce, which reported spending a little more than two million dollars.

Among other federal agencies, nine reported spending more than one million dollars on FOIA matters during the fiscal year. The CIA led this list, reporting the expenditure of $9.6 million during the year, and among the others were the Environmental Protection Agency, at $6,203,195, the Social Security Administration, at $4,421,154, the Securities and Exchange Commission, at $1,859,700, the National Archives and Records Administration, at $1,642,970, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, at $1,555,180. On the other hand, twenty agencies reported total FOIA costs of less than $25,000 during the year.

Comparisons with Previous Years

The Department of Justice's standard format for annual FOIA reports includes a section entitled, "Comparisons with Previous Year(s)." Agencies used this section to provide additional information about their administration of the Act that was of particular significance to them, including additional statistics where applicable.

Most departments and agencies that provided information in this category stated that they had reduced the number of incoming FOIA requests by posting information of public interest on their FOIA Web sites. The only exception, as noted above, was the Social Security Administration, which reported an increase in the number of its requests due to the increased demand for original Social Security application records by individuals or organizations with genealogical interests.

Somewhat anomalously, the Federal Reserve System reported that due to its posting of information on its FOIA Web site, the simplest FOIA requests that it receives -- i.e., the type of requests that take the fewest number of days to process -- had markedly decreased in volume. Consequently, it experienced an increase in median processing times, compared to previous years, because a greater proportion of the requests that it processed were more complex requests. Another result of FOIA Web site usage was reported by the National Endowment for the Arts. Due to information that it made available on its FOIA Web site, it reported, its volume of FOIA requests decreased from a high of 697 in fiscal year 1995 to only 74 in fiscal year 1999.

Many departments and agencies reported that they were improving their timeliness by various electronic means. Among these were the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Additionally, many agencies reported the value of using in-house and external training activities for its FOIA personnel. Among these were the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Justice, the Department of Transportation, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Maritime Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the United States Postal Service.

Lastly, many agencies reported that they were monitoring and evaluating internal procedures in an effort to reduce processing times. Among these were the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, the Federal Reserve System, the National Archives and Records Administration, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the Social Security Administration, and the United States Postal Service.

As noted above, the Office of Information and Privacy plans to prepare governmentwide annual FOIA report compilations such as this on a regular basis, which will require increased diligence by all agencies in the timely completion of their reports each year. See FOIA Post, "Supplemental Guidance on Annual FOIA Reports" (posted 8/13/01). Simply put, the untimeliness of the last agency to complete its report each year necessarily constrains this governmentwide compilation process, so it is important that all agencies heed the Act's requirements for annual FOIA reports in a timely fashion. See 5 U.S.C. 552(e)(1)-(3).   (posted 10/15/01)


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