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Summary of Annual FOIA Reports for Fiscal Year 2000

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 now 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 seventy-two other federal agencies for Fiscal Year 2000.

Number of Requests Received

The total number of Freedom of Information Act/Privacy Act access requests received by all federal departments and agencies during Fiscal Year 2000 was 2,235,201, which marks the first time that the two-million-request level has been exceeded. This figure is more than 13.5% greater than the number of requests received during Fiscal Year 1999.

Of all federal departments, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported the largest number of requests received, 1,239,844, 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 235,042, and the Department of Agriculture's total was third highest, at 140,239. This is the first time in recent years that the Department of Agriculture, rather than the Department of Defense, has received the third-highest number of requests.

Among all other agencies, the Social Security Administration topped the list with 262,450 requests received, which far exceeded the number of requests that it received during the preceding fiscal year (139,029). In fact, the number of requests received by the Social Security Administration almost quintupled over a three-year period -- beginning from a level of 55,886 in Fiscal Year 1998. The Social Security Administration attributes this dramatic increase to the popularity of Social Security documents in general -- and, in particular, to the growing popularity of access provided through its Form SS-5 ("Application for Social Security Number") among genealogists.

The federal departments reporting the fewest numbers of requests received during Fiscal Year 2000 were the Department of Education, with 1633 requests, and the Department of Commerce, with 2035 requests. Among other agencies, those with the fewest requests were the Farm Credit System Insurance Corporation, which received two requests; the National Counterintelligence Center, which reported receiving only one request; and the Oklahoma City National Memorial, a relatively new federal agency, which reported that it did not receive any FOIA 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 2000 was 169,180, which is an 8.5% increase over the previous year. As of the end of Fiscal Year 1999, the number had been 156,429.

Departments reporting a decrease in their backlogs from Fiscal Year 1999 to Fiscal Year 2000 were the Department of Education, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Justice. These percentage reductions ranged from one-half percent to sixteen percent. Nineteen other federal agencies reported a decrease in their backlogs as well. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation reported the greatest percentage reduction of its number of pending requests, at sixty-eight percent.

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 Federal Communications Commission (289), the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (79), the Library of Congress (56), and the Surface Transportation Board (53).

Disposition of Requests

For nine 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 Health and Human Services, the Department of Justice, the Department of Labor, the Department of State, and the Department of the Treasury -- which may be seen as a reflection of the sensitivity of the information requested from these departments. Among all federal agencies, there was almost an even split between those agencies that had "total grants" for more than half of their requests processed and those that did not. In sum, the total number of access requests processed by all federal agencies during fiscal year 2000 was 2,214,402, which exceeded the number of requests processed during the preceding Fiscal Year by 274,734, or almost fifteen percent.

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 seventy-five percent 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, in order 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 far greater than that of Exemption 6. Additionally, under Exemption 3 of the Act, agencies withheld information pursuant to a total of 132 different nondisclosure statutes (ten fewer than during the preceding fiscal year), all of which were required to be specified by agencies in their annual reports.

Appeals of Initial Denials of Requests

The Department of Justice was the recipient of the largest number of appeals of initial denials of access requests: It received 4547 administrative appeals during Fiscal Year 2000. Among cabinet-level agencies, the Department of the Treasury received the second-highest number of appeals, with 1496, and the Department of Defense received the third-highest, with 896.

Among all other agencies, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission topped the list with 393 administrative appeals, followed by the Central Intelligence Agency, with 258, and the United States Postal Service, with 163. On the other hand, no fewer than thirteen agencies reported that they did not receive any administrative appeals in Fiscal Year 2000, and an additional twenty-eight agencies reported receiving five or fewer appeals during the year.

Median Number of Days to Process Requests

Three departments reported that they processed simple requests in twenty or fewer working days, expressed in agencywide median numbers. Three 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 thus reports its FOIA statistics accordingly. Overall, only fourteen percent of agencies that used single-track processing 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 fifteen days. The highest number was the Department of Energy's, which reported that the median number of days that requests were pending at that department during Fiscal Year 2000 was 2090. Only thirteen 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.

Agency action on requests for expedited processing also was included in the annual reports. See also FOIA Post, "Supplemental Guidance on Annual FOIA Reports" (posted 8/13/01) (specifying that in addition to reporting the numbers of requests for expedited processing that were granted during the year, as required by statute, agencies in future years "should to the extent practicable also report the number of requests for expedited processing that are received each year, in relation to the number granted").

In total, departments and agencies reported granting requests for expedited processing more than 75,000 times, with the Department of Veterans Affairs reporting the highest number of such grants by a very wide margin. The next highest numbers of such grants were reported by the Department of Labor, the Department of Defense, the Department of Agriculture, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Staffing Levels

A total of 5378.456 employee work-years were devoted to the administration of the FOIA throughout the federal government during Fiscal Year 2000. Among cabinet-level agencies, the Department of Justice reported the greatest number of FOIA work-years, at 1069.1. The Department of Defense reported the second-highest number, at 890.21, and the Department of Agriculture was third highest, at more than 500 hours. The department with the smallest number of FOIA employees (expressed in aggregate work-years) was the Department of Education, with 9.1, followed by the Department of Commerce, with 27, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, with 40.

Among all federal agencies, fifty 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 630, the Social Security Administration, with 142.5, and the Central Intelligence Agency, with 77.8.

Costs

For Fiscal Year 2000, the total cost of all FOIA-related activities for all federal departments and agencies, as reported in their annual FOIA reports, was $253,049,516.37, which is first time that this reported figure has passed the quarter-billion-dollar level. More than eleven million dollars of this was reported as spent on litigation-related activities. Of total agency costs, only the amount of $7,169,084.25 (or 2.83%) was reported to have been recouped by the government (albeit not retained by individual federal agencies) through FOIA fees.

The federal department with the highest total costs was the Department of Justice, which reported spending more than sixty-nine million dollars on FOIA-related activities during Fiscal Year 2000. Second was the Department of Defense, at more than thirty-six million dollars, and third was the Department of Veterans Affairs, at more than twenty-four million dollars. The federal department that reported spending the least amount of money on the FOIA was the Department of Education, at just under a half-million dollars. Also at the lower end of reported FOIA costs for federal departments were the Department of Housing and Urban Department, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Energy, each of which spent approximately two million dollars.

Among other federal agencies, nine reported spending more than one million dollars on FOIA matters during the fiscal year. The Social Security Administration led this list, reporting the expenditure of $16.2 million during the year. Among the others were the CIA, at $9.8 million, the Environmental Protection Agency, at $7,628,075, the Securities and Exchange Commission, at $3,058,293, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, at $1,393,465, and the National Archives and Records Administration, at $1,339,336. On the other hand, twenty-three 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 (Section VIII) 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. See also FOIA Post, "Supplemental Guidance on Annual FOIA Reports" (posted 8/13/01) (advising agencies that such statistics "can be specified in Section VIII, Part D, of the standard report format").

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. For example, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that largely due to information that it made available on its FOIA Web site, its volume of FOIA requests decreased from a high of 697 in Fiscal Year 1995 to only 79 in Fiscal Year 2000. Likewise, agencies such as the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the Corporation for National Service, and the Tennessee Valley Authority reported achieving such results as well. In this regard, many agencies mentioned putting in their electronic reading rooms records that have been frequently requested under the FOIA, as required by the 1996 Electronic FOIA Amendments. See 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(2)(D).

Additionally, under this report heading, eight federal departments and twenty-six federal agencies reported increases in the numbers of FOIA requests that they received in Fiscal Year 2000 as compared to Fiscal Year 1999. By contrast, six federal departments and forty-one federal agencies reported in Section VIII receiving fewer requests for access in 2000 than in 1999. At the Social Security Administration (SSA), where the number of requests has greatly increased in recent years (see above), much of that increase was attributed to the use of its records by genealogists: "The genealogy hobby is growing in the United States and is causing continuing increases in SSA FOIA requests."

For Fiscal Year 2000, 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 the Interior, the Department of Justice, the Department of Transportation, the Department of the Treasury, 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 them were the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Justice, the Department of Transportation, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Maritime Commission, NASA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

Lastly, many agencies reported that they were monitoring and evaluating their internal FOIA administrative procedures in an effort to reduce their request-processing times. Among these were the Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Interior, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

As noted above, the Office of Information and Privacy now will be preparing governmentwide annual FOIA report compilations such as this on a regular yearly basis, as soon as possible after the completion of all agency reports following the end of each fiscal year, and this 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). All agencies should remember that 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 the completion of their annual FOIA reports in a timely fashion. See 5 U.S.C. 552(e)(1)-(3).   (posted 1/31/02)


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