By: Mark Fitzgerald
To open-government advocates, President George W. Bush’s 2006 presidential order that federal agencies speed up their response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests was a kind of unexpected miracle coming from the leader of the most secretive administration in modern times.
But most of those who study Washington’s compliance with FOIA greeted the order the way miracles should be viewed — with plenty of skepticism. That instinct to turns out to have been the correct one.
Just in time for the 42nd anniversary of the signing of FOIA on the Fourth of July, the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government (CJOG) released a study showing that federal agencies and departments “have made little if any progress in responding to Freedom of Information Act requests, despite a two-year-old presidential order to improve service.”
Now you may have read some weeks ago that the U.S. Justice Department was claiming to have made “remarkable improvements” in FOIA responses, especially in reducing the unconscionable backlog of requests.
But the CJOG study looking behind those numbers, and points out that for individual requesters, the waiting time has barely improved at most agencies, and has actually lengthened at some others.
Not only that, but federal agencies are denying requests at the highest percentage ever since 1998, when agencies were required to report on FOIA response rates. The percentage of successful requesters, who got all or part of the information they sought, fell to a record low of 60%.
The White House that promised improved FOIA service has also reduced the number of people responsible for handling requests by 8% — and cut FOIA processing budgets by 3%. Bureaucrats accustomed to scoring themselves according to their empire-building ability understand the message of lower staffs and budgets: Don’t take Bush’s presidential order too seriously by actually improving FOIA responses.
Consider the backlogs at 25 federal agencies. CJOG, a coalition of more than 30 journalism-related organizations, found that the overall backlog fell to 33% of requests processed from a record 39%, but that was because of big reductions at a few agencies such as Housing and Urban Development, which managed to knock its backlog to 10% from an astounding 188%. Backlogs at 11 of the 25 agencies were not reduced, or actually worsened.
Agencies “blew an opportunity” to make a big dent in backlogs, CJOG said, because the number of FOIA requests actually dropped by 63,000 from 2006. Despite that breather, agencies processed just 2,100 more requests than they did in 2006.
In fact, FOIA request processing didn’t get speedier at most agencies. Fifteen agencies reported slower response times than the year before in handling “simple” requests. Thirteen were slower in handling “complex” requests.
There’s a “simple” reason for this FOIA foot-dragging on requests whatever their category: The Bush administration’s culture of secrecy has seeped deep into a bureaucracy that never needed much encouragement in the first place when it comes to hoarding information that belongs to all the American people.