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FOIA Update: Costs and Benefits -- FOIA

FOIA Update
Vol. I, No. 3

Costs and Benefits -- FOIA

In the current belt-tightening economic climate, many question federal spending. The Office of Information Law & Policy (OILP) asked federal agencies to estimate their 1978 costs and to analyze FOIA costs and benefits.

Agencies reported combined cost estimates of $47.8 million in 1978. This figure probably underestimates the true cost, according to Edward D. Jones, III, Senior Economic Adviser in the Justice Department.

Agencies identified "fishing expedition" requests and related "all record" requests as particularly time consuming and costly. Such requests, which may provide little guidance for search, created higher costs than would be necessary had the requests been clear and specific.

Another significant cost factor resulted from the requirement to review records line-by-line. These review costs cannot be charged to the requestor and may be very high.

In addition, because FOIA review activities divert professionals and other personnel from their principal work, costs described as "opportunity costs" arose. As a result other important agency work was often delayed or performed at a reduced level.

With regard to FOIA compliance, agencies indicated that potential disclosure under FOIA creates costs by adversely affecting behavior of private citizens, such as in background security investigations of the fitness of a job candidate. Businesses perceive a disincentive in submitting requested or required proprietary information that later may be sought by competitors.

Agencies expressed concern over costs arising from the private use of public resources. Examples include the use of FOIA as a substitute for discovery in litigation and the use of FOIA for commercial purposes.

Disclosure of information under FOIA has often been broader and less expensive to the requester than under established discovery procedures. However, the costs to the agency have been substantially higher. Under FOIA there are no limits of relevancy or burden.

Commercial requests for information under FOIA generally fall into two categories: (1) information on competitors in contract proposals and federally mandated information submissions; and (2) information for marketing use, such as mailing, employee, and agency client lists.

Agencies may incur heavy costs for providing information that will have primarily a direct private benefit. Any indirect public benefits from such work are often hard to measure. But there were indications that the competitiveness of small businesses in federal procurement was enhanced by small business access to information such as portions of winning proposals for merely the cost of copying. Similarly, expensive federally-funded research methodologies are available for the cost of copying.


Finally, public interest requests for public health and safety records fulfill a FOIA objective to hold regulatory agencies accountable. However, broad requests may be extremely costly. It is difficult to evaluate whether or not the costs may exceed the benefit of the information to the public. Because FOIA has no statutory limitation that requests for records be reasonable, groups' large demands under FOIA can effectively delay agency action.


Agencies found the benefits of FOIA as difficult to quantify as they did the indirect costs. Generally, benefits to the government included better management of records and improved relations with the public.

Agencies reported that record quality was enhanced and record accessibility was improved. In addition, for many agencies, FOIA inspired the development of record retention standards that reduced record storage costs. Finally, agencies found that the FOIA-required Public Document Room and Indexes provided useful training facilities to acquaint new employees with agency activities.

Agencies found that FOIA enhanced agency responsiveness to public information needs. The agencies perceive better public understanding of and more confidence in agency work. In addition, FOIA fostered greater public participation in agency decision-making.

Finally, FOIA served broad public interests. Easier information access; greater public awareness of laws, rules, regulations, policies, and procedures; enhanced government efficiency and responsiveness; greater public participation in federal government affairs; enhanced public confidence in the federal government; and better quality information at reduced cost.


To assess accurately the magnitude of FOIA-related costs and benefits would be a monumental task. Many of the costs are hard to trace and many of the benefits are subtle. Costs that can be reduced without substantially altering the public benefits of FOIA need to be isolated.

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Updated August 13, 2014