By: Mark Fitzgerald
Back in December of 2005 with the White House coming under increasing criticism for its secrecy, President George W. Bush ordered federal agencies to speed up their responses to requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
A new FOIA report card by a coalition of journalists groups makes it clear that Bush’s directive did not produce a “surge” in the response rate by the agencies.
The study by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government concludes the Bush directive did nothing to speed up responses by agencies that have been systematically cutting back the personnel assigned to FOIA work, even as backlogs of requests grow and the cost of fulfilling requests increases.
“Requests remain heavily backlogged,” the study says. “Requesters still have long wait times for a response from many agencies. And people seeking records and information remain less likely to get the information they seek than in the past.”
The coalition assembled the FOIA performance reports from 15 Cabinet-level departments and 15 agencies dating back to 1998, when agency reporting was first required. The 13 agencies that had reported 2006 performance by Feb. 9 were also included in the study.
Overall, the groups said, FOIA performance remains at the lowest point since 1998.
One of the biggest problem is the growing backlog of requests. In 2005, the overall backlog was a record 31% of the requests, a percentage that was 138% above the 1998 level. And the agencies that have so far reported 2006 results are showing an even higher average backlog, the coalition said.
Some individual agencies have huge backloads. The Agency for International Development (AID), for instance, got processed 197 requests in 2005, and ended the year with 469 requests still unfulfilled — a backlog of 238%. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had a backlog in 2005 of 131%, and Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a backlog of 127%.
As a result, requesters are waiting longer to get information. In 1998, five of the 26 agencies reported a median waiting time of more than the 20 working-days statutory requirement for producing information for “simple” requests. By 2005, the number of agencies failing to meet that level of service was up to 13.
It’s not as if the agencies have a significantly bigger workload. In fact, the coalition said, the number of requests hit a high in 2000, and have been falling “modestly” since then. And agencies are flat rejecting more requests, too.
“The percentage of requesters who received all or even part of the information sought fell 31% among the agencies that have so far reported for 2006,” the coalition said, noting that’s on top of an overall 6% decline in 2005. In raw number, 52,398 fewer requesters got the information they sought in 2005 than the number of satisfied requesters in 1998.