FOIA Update: Estimating FOIA Costs

January 1, 1980

FOIA Update
Vol. I, No. 2
1980


Estimating FOIA Costs

In 1974 Congress amended FOIA to strengthen public access to government information. The legislative history shows that the cost of this enhanced access was thought to be relatively small. The Senate Committee on the Judiciary determined that "the total maximum projected cost of S. 2543 would be $40,000 per year," and the House Committee on Government Operations determined that "additional costs that may be required by this legislation [H.R. 12471] should not exceed $50,000 in fiscal year 1974 and $100,000 for each of the succeeding five fiscal years."

In early 1979, the Office of Information Law and Policy surveyed federal agencies on their 1978 costs and the gains in administering FOIA. A tabulation of the responses shows FOIA costs in 1978 of an estimated $47.8 million, considerably in excess of the Congressional cost estimates of five years earlier. Well over 80 percent of this represents personnel, with the remainder travel, training, and materials. With few exceptions, agencies absorb these costs from budgets that do not expressly allow for FOIA activities.

According to Edward D. Jones, III, Senior Economic Adviser in the Justice Department, there are reasons to believe that the $47.8 million figure substantially underestimates the true costs of FOIA. The true costs would include what economists call "opportunity cost," with an example being the Internal Revenue Service's estimated $29 million in lost tax revenue resulting from the diversion of tax return examiners to FOIA activities. While other agencies were able to identify similar costs, they were unable to quantify them. Another example is the ten-day FOIA time constraint that elevates FOIA work to a top level of priority in agencies. This exacts costs in delaying agency business that cannot be recouped.

The next issue of FOIA Update will contain an analysis of FOIA costs and benefits.

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