Survey Results on Access to Information Problems Encountered by
Federal, State, and Local Accountability Organizations
Evaluation and Inspections Report I-2006-006
Office of the Inspector General
Accountability organizations such as federal and state offices of inspector general and state and local audit organizations are responsible for helping ensure that government operations use public resources wisely and achieve intended results. As part of these accountability responsibilities, access to government information is critical to conducting audits, evaluations, inspections, and investigations. If accountability organizations face obstacles in obtaining access to records and other information, they will have difficulty performing their important missions.
To assess the nature and extent of information access problems and identify examples of successful strategies employed to gain access, the Government Accountability Office’s Domestic Working Group surveyed accountability organizations at the federal, state, and local levels. The Domestic Working Group is an informal group consisting of the Comptroller General of the United States and the heads of 18 federal, state, and local accountability organizations. With the assistance of the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General conducted the survey and compiled the results.
RESULTS IN BRIEF
The survey population included the Government Accountability Office, 59 federal offices of inspector general, 64 state auditor offices, and 231 city and county accountability offices. In all, we sent the survey to 355 organizations and received completed surveys from 128 organizations.1
Access to Information Problems Exist, But Overall They Are Not Large Problems for the Survey Respondents.
For the many financial audits, performance audits, evaluations, inspections, and investigations that respondent organizations conduct each year, more than one-fourth of their responses overall reported that they experience no access problems. Generally, less than one-fifth of the responses indicated access to information problems in more than 25 percent of reviews.
Respondents’ Access Problems Have Generally Remained at the Same Level and Their Satisfaction With Accessing Information is High.
Respondent organizations reported that the trend in access to information problems has remained about the same over the last three years. For all four functions (financial audits, performance audits, evaluations and inspections, and investigations), about three-fourths of the survey responses overall reported a stable trend. Also, for the past 3-year period, almost two-thirds of the responses indicated that organizations were “very satisfied” or “generally satisfied” with the trend in accessing information.
For the “current” state of access to information, more than two-thirds of the responses were “satisfied” or “very satisfied.”
Access Delays to Records and Unavailability/Uncooperativeness of Specific People Are More Common Problems for Respondents, but Denials of Records Are Not.
However, federal, state, and local survey respondents reported that they usually face delays in obtaining access to records and to specific people. More than three-fourths of responses indicated that delays in obtaining records occurred “sometimes,” “often,” and “always/almost always,” and almost two-thirds of responses reported unavailability/ uncooperativeness of specific people. Conversely, for denials of “most” or “specific” records, at least two-thirds of responses were “never” and “rarely.”
Most Survey Respondents Did Not Consider Any Specific Factor as Playing a “Major or Very Major” Role in Inhibiting Access to Information.
Out of the 12 inhibiting factors that respondent organizations were asked to rate, only one factor “The other organization’s management took too long to respond to requests for information” was rated much higher than the others as a “major or very major” concern.2 Of the other 11 factors, three were rated the highest: 1) “The other organization had privacy/confidentiality concerns,” 2) “The other organization said that it had insufficient personnel to satisfy your requests,” and 3) “The other organization said it already had too much work to satisfy your request.”
More than two-thirds of survey responses indicated that the following factors played “no role” in access to information problems: 1) “The other organization indicated that the request for information was not in the appropriate format,” 2) “The other organizations said that it had insufficient funds to satisfy your requests,” and 3) “The other organization indicated that the request for information was ambiguous.”
Survey Respondents Resolve Most of Their Access to Information Problems Through a Variety of Strategies.
Survey respondents reported that satisfactory resolution of access problems occurs most of the time. With few exceptions, organizations reported successful resolution of access problems in the majority of their reviews. At least one-fourth of responses indicated resolution of problems in “All” financial audits, performance audits, evaluations and inspections, and investigations.
Out of the nine strategies for resolving access problems that respondents were asked to rate, “Addressing issues early in the process to avoid access issues before they occur” was rated “very or moderately useful” by two-thirds of the responses, which was the highest response rate. Slightly more than half of the responses also rated as important strategies “Encouraging the other organization’s management to support providing access to information” and “Communicating frequently with other organizations to explain your missions, authority, and information requirements.”
In their narrative comments, respondents stated that they also used as strategies: 1) Providing examples of acceptable documentation, 2) Having persons knowledgeable with information technology work with the organization undergoing review to facilitate obtaining automated data, 3) Protecting sensitive information in work papers, and 4) Ensuring reports do not contain sensitive information inappropriate for public issuance.
CONCLUSIONBased on the accountability organizations that responded to the survey, we found that these respondents were generally satisfied with their access to information. Barriers in obtaining records and access to people are usually resolved successfully. The major issue that survey respondents identified was delays in receiving information. However, respondents reported that early intervention and frequent and clear communication with managers proved to be successful strategies for dealing with access problems.
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