Despite a recent report commending government agencies’ progress in responding to FOIA requests, a new study shows they haven’t come as far as they might like to think.
A look at 10 years’ worth of agency statistics by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government showed that agencies’ actual performance of their own established goals and Congressionally mandated reporting fell somewhat short of the "remarkable improvements" the Justice Department touted in mid-June.
A major ongoing problem with FOIA has been the backlog of requests that have accumulated over the years. The study showed that agency requests decreased in the 10 years covered, but the backlogs steadily increased over that period — from 13% in 1998 to 33% in 2007.
Agencies also granted fewer requests — only 60% of requesters received full or partial grants of information — which CJOG found to be a record low. And those who received information had to wait longer for it. Fifteen of the 25 agencies reported slower processing for "simple" requests and all 21 agencies that processed "complex" requests missed the 20-day statutory response deadline for at least half of the requests.
But all statistics from the study were not necessarily disappointing. Homeland Security faced a 20% reduction in FOIA personnel yet managed to process 23,000 additional FOIA requests in 2007 than in the previous year — a jump of 21%.
The CJOG study, "An Opportunity Lost," was a "last hurrah" of sorts for the organization, which has produced several in-depth reports on FOIA compliance, tracked state and federal open government issues and served as an invaluable resource for reporters and the public alike. The organization’s duties will be picked up by the Reporters Committee and the Sunshine in Government Initiative, as CJOG coordinator Pete Weitzel has decided to retire. He will be greatly missed.