New FOIA Study: Longer Waits, More Denials, and Higher Costs.

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By: Joe Strupp Freedom of Information Act requests are costing more, being denied more often, and take longer to complete, according to a new study from the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government.

?Service continues to frustrate requesters, despite a presidential directive ordering agencies to improve agency response and a Justice Department assessment that said changes made so far are encouraging,? the survey, titled ?Still Waiting After All these Years," declared.

"Why the disparity? It's simple: the Justice report looked at how agencies are doing relative to self-established bureaucratic goals. Our analysis takes agencies' own FOIA reports and measures how they're doing in delivering information to the public," Pete Weitzel, Coalition coordinator, said in a statement. "What we're seeing is that all the basic indicators of efficiency ? backlog, waiting time, requests granted ? are still doing poorly. The only place where we saw numbers go up was in the amount of taxpayers' dollars spent."

The report reviewed federal data from 1998, when such information was first made public, through 2006, the most recent available. ?Records were collected from 30 federal departments and agencies that handle the majority of FOIA requests,? the survey reported. ?Then, the performance was compared for the 26 agencies that primarily handle third-party requests.?

Among the findings:

* By the end of 2006, the 26 primary agencies had a combined backlog of 39 percent. ?That means that almost two out of every five requests filed did not get into the processing hopper before the year ended. The FOIA backlog has increased 200 percent since agencies began reporting in 1998. It nearly doubled in the past two years.?

* In 2006, the 26 agencies received the fewest requests since reporting began in 1998. The number of requests dropped 6 percent in the past year and 10 percent in the past two years. ?The backlog kept growing because the agencies have processed fewer requests in each succeeding year since 2003.?

* Just five of the 26 agencies in 1998 showed a median response time for "simple" requests that exceeded the 20 working-day statutory deadline. But last year, 14 of the agencies exceeded the deadline. In the handling of "complex" requests, only one of the 19 agencies that missed the 20-day deadline in 2005, the Defense Department, was able to bring its response time in line in 2006.

* The number of denials increased 10 percent in 2006, meaning 217,720 fewer requests received the full granting of access than in 1998, and 183,453 fewer requesters received any access.

* The cost of processing FOIA requests increased 40 percent since 1998, although agencies are processing 20 percent fewer requests and the number of FOIA workers in 2006 dropped 10 percent from 1998 levels.

* Most FOIA workers handled 136 requests a year in 1998, with that figure rising to 143 in 2005, but down to 120 last year.

* The average cost of handling a request, $294 in 1998, rose to $494 in 2005, and to $526 in 2006.

* Exemptions cited for withholding information have increased 83 percent since 1998, even as the number of requests processed fell 20 percent.

More information is available at the Coalition's Web site, www.cjog.net.

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