Over the last five years, agency Chief Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Officer Reports have provided detailed descriptions of agency efforts to improve FOIA administration in five key areas addressed by Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines. As part of a five-part series which started during Sunshine Week 2014, OIP continues to highlight some of the successes in these five key areas as reported by agencies in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports.
Improving Timeliness in Responding to Requests and Reducing Backlogs
Both the President and the Attorney General have emphasized the importance of improving timeliness in responding to requests. In his FOIA Memorandum issued on his first full day in office, President Obama directed agencies to “act promptly” when responding to requests. Attorney General Holder similarly emphasized in his FOIA Guidelines that “[t]imely disclosure of information is an essential component of transparency . . . [and that] [l]ong delays should not be viewed as an inevitable and insurmountable consequence of high demand.” For the 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports, agencies were asked to provide detailed information on their average processing times for simple requests and their efforts to reduce backlogs and close their ten oldest requests, appeals, and consultations. Those agencies that had a request backlog of over 1,000, and did not reduce that backlog, were also required to provide a plan for achieving backlog reduction in the year ahead. Likewise, agencies that did not close their ten oldest requests, appeals, or consultations were required to describe their plans for closing those requests, appeals or consultations by the next fiscal year.
Because of the strong correlation between the type of request that is made and the ability of the agency to respond to that request more quickly, in 2012, OIP established a milestone that addresses whether the agency overall responded to requests in its simple track within an average of twenty working days or less. Agencies were once again required to report on this metric in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports. Sixty-three agencies, including seven of the fifteen cabinet level agencies, reported that they were either able to process their simple-track requests in an average of twenty-working days or less, or if they did not utilize multi-track processing, they were able to process all of their non-expedited requests within that average timeframe.
With regard to request backlogs, fifty-five agencies reported that they were either able to reduce the number of requests in their backlog at the end of Fiscal Year 2013 or they had no backlog to reduce. Additionally, four agencies reported no change in their request backlog, and twelve agencies reported a slight increase of up to five backlogged requests. Twenty-eight agencies experienced a backlog increase of more than five requests. Notably, however, seventy-three agencies were able to maintain a small request backlog of 100 requests or less, with twenty-nine of these agencies reporting no backlog at all.
For administrative FOIA appeals, seventy-three agencies reported that they were either able to reduce the number of appeals in their backlog at the end of Fiscal Year 2013 or they had no backlog to reduce. Three agencies had no change in their appeals backlog, and fifteen agencies reported a slight increase of up to five backlogged appeals. While eight agencies reported a backlog increase of over five appeals, a total of eighty-two agencies maintained a backlog of twenty or less appeals.
As with previous years, agencies that experienced an increase in their request or appeal backlogs explained the causes that contributed to those increases in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports. Some of the common factors reported by agencies included an increase in the number of incoming requests, loss of FOIA staff, and an increase in the complexity of the requests or appeals received by the agency.
A critical element of the government's efforts to reduce backlogs and answer the President's and Attorney General’s call to provide timely disclosures of information is closing the ten oldest pending requests, appeals, and consultations at each agency every year. Sixty-eight agencies reported that they were either able to close all ten of their oldest requests from Fiscal Year 2012 by the end of Fiscal Year 2013, or they had no ten oldest to close. With regard to appeals, eighty agencies were either able to close their ten oldest pending appeals or they had no ten oldest to close. Finally, ninety-three agencies were able to close their ten oldest pending consultations or they continued to maintain no pending consultations at the end of the fiscal year.
Agencies were also asked to report in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports on whether they have a system in place for providing requesters substantive interim responses when appropriate. In the spirit of providing more timely disclosures of information, OIP issued guidance in 2010 to agencies encouraging the use of interim releases whenever a request involves a voluminous amount of material or a search in multiple locations is required. The vast majority of agencies reported that they did have a process in place for making interim responses. Additionally, each agency reported an estimate of the number of cases in their backlog for which an interim response was provided.
This is just a snapshot of agencies' efforts to improve timeliness and reduce backlogs. OIP encourages both agencies and the public to review the individual 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports issued by agencies for a more comprehensive view of agency progress in this area.
As with previous years, this summer OIP will once again publish its assessment of agencies' implementation of the President's and Attorney General's FOIA Memoranda based on agency Annual and Chief FOIA Officer Reports. Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for more information on the Department’s continuing efforts to improve both transparency and understanding of the FOIA.