An assessment of federal agency Freedom of Information Act reports for the 2010 fiscal year found that agencies have improved FOIA performance in some areas in comparison to fiscal year 2009, but most indicators of openness have not yet returned to the averages seen prior to the George W. Bush administration.
It appears that "FOIA implementation under President Obama is one of rebuilding openness, not of an immediate turn-around," according to the report, which was published by OMB Watch on Wednesday in honor of National Freedom of Information Day.
The report noted that "the Obama administration inherited a neglected FOIA system that had been experiencing a steady decline in key FOIA performance measures for years."
One significant improvement in FOIA performance under the Obama administration is a drop in the number of pending FOIA requests, according to the report. The administration's 2009 Open Government Directive called on agencies with significant backlogs to reduce the number by 10 percent each year. The assessment noted: "The number of FOIA requests pending at the end of the fiscal year has dropped dramatically since 2008 — by more than half." It appears that the administration's emphasis has made an impact, the report concluded.
The report also found that there was a 13 percent decrease in fiscal year 2010 in the percentage of requests agencies denied by citing statutory exemptions. However, the report also labeled the use of the exemptions a weakness because the percentage of such denials remains high.
Notably, use of the five most commonly claimed exemptions — 2, 5, 6, 7(C) and 7(E) — decreased considerably. Yet "use of these exemptions continued to be much higher than in 2008 or most previous years," the report said. More than 85 percent of reasons cited for withholding documents included one of the five exemptions. Under the Obama administration, the most popular exemption is 7(C), which justifies withholding law enforcement records whose disclosure would invade one's personal privacy.
Of the FOIA requests processed in fiscal year 2010, 95 percent were granted in full or in part. Although this total percentage is higher than the Clinton and George W. Bush administration annual averages, the percentage of fully granted requests remains well below these previous administrations, although it improved by about 7 percent from 2009.
In general, "improvements should be construed as good news," said founder and Executive Director of OMB Watch Gary Bass. In comparison to past years, "we haven't improved enough," he said. "The tide is starting to turn, in terms of aggregate numbers, but we still have a long way to go."
Bass credits the Obama administration for the slight improvement seen, but notes that it is up to the agencies to follow-through with the administration's policies. "I think there's a distinction between what the Obama administration is trying to achieve and the way the agencies are implementing that policy," he explained. "We might be seeing, if you will, a very slow turn in the attitudinal and cultural shift with FOIA within the agencies."
Regarding the future, "the ideal is to get more information disclosed by the agencies so we don't have to rely on" the FOIA "out-of-date" mechanisms, Bass said. He added that this future is likely far away.