The Department of Justice has a decentralized FOIA processing system. Under this framework, each of the Department's components maintains and processes its own records in response to FOIA requests. Overall, 63,000 requests were received and processed during FY 2011 and the Department achieved a 26% reduction of the backlog when compared with the number of backlogged requests at the end of FY 2010. The Department has focused on reducing the age of its backlog by closing its ten oldest pending requests in FY2011, and it has reduced the age of its oldest pending request from 4,978 days to 1,071 since the end of FY 2008.
The range in the number of FOIA requests received by the Department of Justice components ranged from as high as 20,878 to as low as ten in FY 2011. Consequently, the capacity to analyze, coordinate, and respond to requests in a timely manner varies by component. Furthermore, as the volume of requests received is so diverse, the proposed changes and necessary reforms that are essential for a component to strengthen its response process can be quite varied across the Department. For ease of discussion, the components can be roughly divided into three groups, according to the volume of FOIA requests each receives per year.
The Department has eight components that receive a large number of requests, 1,000 or more per year, as reported in the Department's FY 2011 Annual FOIA Report. Components receiving a large volume of FOIA requests generally take longer than 20 working days to respond to those requests, with the median response time for simple requests within a range of one to 52 days; complex requests within eight to 282 days; and expedited requests within seven to 188 days. Notably, all but one of these large-volume components were able to close all of their ten oldest perfected requests that were pending at the start of FY 2011. The large-volume components have made tremendous progress in closing their oldest requests, as the age of the oldest pending request among these components decreased by nearly seven years from FY 2009 to FY 2011. A majority of the large-volume components reduced their backlog in FY 2011, with four of these components reducing their backlog by hundreds of requests. Simple requests are typically those involving a small volume of records which are simple to process, while complex requests are those involving a high volume of records and/or high complexity to process. The large-volume components report that the need to coordinate with - and, particularly, to retrieve records from - subcomponent field offices, divisions, and institutions is a primary factor in their capacity to respond to requests in a timely manner. They generally agree that there is a need to streamline coordination among subcomponents, which are often scattered nationwide or even globally. High-volume components have found that enhanced communications with requesters can be especially useful in tailoring requests to increase the components' ability to respond in a more timely manner.
There are 14 components that receive a smaller but still substantial number of FOIA requests each year. These medium-volume components received between 100 and 999 requests in FY 2011. Although the net backlog of these fourteen components increased by two requests from FY 2010 to FY2011, a majority reported a decrease in backlog. These components demonstrated that generally they are able to handle simple requests within twenty working days. Further, these components continue to work on improving their response time on complex requests. As of September 30, 2011, the range in dates for the oldest pending request was March 20, 2008 to June 16, 2011. This excludes one medium-volume component that had no pending requests as of that date. Components are continuing to make substantial efforts and are taking positive steps to improve response times. All components report that they conduct periodic evaluations of their FOIA systems and workload to ensure adequate staffing. This includes monitoring the complexity and number of requests, the time taken to process requests, and the appropriate use of personnel based on specialized skills.
The remaining 12 components receive a relatively small volume of requests each year; they received fewer than 100 requests during FY 2011. These components decreased their backlog by a total of 52 requests in FY 2011. They are generally able to respond to requests in a timely manner. All of these components responded to simple requests within a median of 23 and one half days. When these components are not able to respond within the twenty-day time period, it is usually in the context of processing complex requests: of the twelve components that processed complex requests in FY 2011, median response times were within a range of four to 376 days. It is notable that eight of the 12 components in this category did not have any backlogged requests at the end of FY 2011. Of those that did, all were able to reduce the age of their oldest request by the end of FY 2011.
The Department showed significant improvement in FOIA administration in Fiscal Year 2011, achieveing a high release rate, closing its ten oldest requests, reducing its backlog, and improving timeliness. We will continue to focus on strengthening the FOIA process in order to respond to requests in a more timely manner. Various approaches will be used by the Department, so it can tailor its efforts to the specific challenges facing the range of components receiving and processing FOIA requests.
Information about the Department’s FOIA efforts is available at http://www.justice.gov/open/foia.html and at http://www.justice.gov/oip/oip.html.