Report finds little FOIA improvement under Obama

Stephen Miller | Freedom of Information | Feature | October 1, 2010

Despite pledges to bring a new level of transparency to the federal government, the Obama administration has not shown a marked change in how agencies handle Freedom of Information Act requests, according to a report released Thursday by the public interest group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

“The most oft-repeated complaint from agency FOIA personnel was being asked to do too much with too little resources,” the report said.

The report highlighted that a lack of staffing and funding were the two greatest impediments to effective FOIA implementation. Agencies’ failure to use the best available technology, large and commercial requests, policy changes with new administrations and “an institutional bias against disclosure” were also cited as additional impediments.

“In too many agencies for too long, FOIA has been the step-child and I think it needs to be elevated in importance and that means also it needs to be elevated in funding,” said Anne Weismann, chief counsel for CREW.

The creation of agency chief FOIA officers and agency FOIA public liaisons were two reforms touted by the administration, but according to the findings they “have had virtually no influence on the work of agency FOIA professionals.”

One survey respondent described the chief FOIA officer as “a useless position filled by someone who is already wearing too many managerial hats,” the report said.

On his first day in office, President Obama called for increased openness and a presumption in favor of disclosure, but the effects of these and other policies have yet to spread throughout the federal government, according to the report.

The survey results showed that nearly 98 percent of respondents were aware of the President's statement and 91 percent were aware of a similar memorandum issued by Attorney General Eric Holder. However, only 22 percent of those aware said that the idea of a presumption of openness had become part of their agency's culture.

Weismann said she spoke with one clerk who was using an X-Acto knife to cut out redactions. “There is technology out there, everyone doesn’t have it,” she said.

“I plan to take some of this information and use it to push for more funding, for example. And use it to help make proposals for these administrations on how they can take the next step in transparency,” she said.

The report was drawn from an online survey crafted by CREW and distributed by the American Society of Access Professionals in May 2010, according to the report. The survey received 363 partial responses and 259 completed responses, and at least 92 percent of respondents described themselves as current or former FOIA professionals. Surveys were completed by respondents in 34 states and at least 30 federal agencies, with the Department of Defense being the most represented.