Over the last four years, agencies have made important strides to improve the government's overall FOIA administration. As discussed in OIP's recently posted Summary of Annual FOIA Reports for Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 (PDF), agencies continued to respond to increasing numbers of incoming FOIA requests in the last fiscal year by processing a record high number of requests and reducing the government's overall backlog by 14%. Agencies achieved these important milestones while improving overall processing times and continuing to maintain a high release rate for requests processed for a disclosure determination. It is important to remember, however, that there is still work to be done to ensure that progress continues to be made in FY 2013.
In these final months of the fiscal year, agencies should pay particular attention to not only reducing the number of FOIA requests in their backlogs, but also to reducing the age of their backlogs by closing their ten oldest pending requests from FY 2012. Both the President and the Attorney General have stressed the importance of timely disclosure of information in response to FOIA requests. Noting in his FOIA Guidelines (PDF) that the "[t]imely disclosure of information is an essential component of transparency," the Attorney General declared that "[l]ong delays should not be viewed as an inevitable and insurmountable consequence of high demand."
In accordance with that directive, OIP issued guidance last year calling on agencies to "renew their focus on their ten oldest requests and the steps that can be taken to ensure that every effort is made to close those requests by the end of the current fiscal year." The guidance also explained that "[a] related and equally significant way that agencies can assist in this effort [to close these older requests] is by making sure that they close the ten oldest consultations they received from other agencies every fiscal year." Because the consultation process relies on the efficiency of multiple agencies, "any delay [for an agency] in receiving a response back on [a] consultation necessarily also delays the final response to the request."
Further emphasizing the importance of closing agencies' oldest requests, shortly after OIP's guidance was issued, the Acting Associate Attorney General joined the Counsel to the President in sending a memorandum to Agency General Counsels and Chief FOIA Officers (PDF) asking these officials to "review [their] oldest pending FOIA requests, and take affirmative steps to resolve them."
Closing the ten oldest pending requests and consultations each year represents a significant step not only toward reducing overall backlogs at agencies, but also to improving FOIA administration across the government. With less than four months remaining in FY 2013, it is important for agencies to reassess the steps needed to close their oldest requests, to identify any barriers to closing them, and to develop solutions that will allow for the processing to be completed by the end of the fiscal year. Through these sustained efforts by all agencies the government overall will be able to continue to make progress in this key area of FOIA administration.
The full guidance article, as well as the memorandum from the Acting Associate Attorney General and Counsel to the President, is available on the OIP Guidance page of our site. If your agency has any questions regarding this or any other FOIA topic, OIP’s FOIA counselor service is available at (202) 514-FOIA (3642).