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GAO analysis of FOI reporting skewed by personal requests

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   May 17, 2005

GAO analysis of FOI reporting skewed by personal requests

  • Because executive branch agency reports to Congress on FOI Act processing lump requests by individuals for personal information with other requests, a distorted picture of FOI success emerges in a congressional agency’s report to Congress.

May 17, 2005  ·   Records fulfilling Freedom of Information Act requests were fully provided 92 percent of the time in 2004, according to a Government Accountability Office report released in early May.

But that number does not distinguish between requests by individuals for their own personal information, which is almost always released, and requests for information about government operations and activities or for government collected data, requests far less likely to be fully answered. Because types of requests are not distinguished in the report, the figure is misleading as to how successful the act is in ensuring open government.

Linda Koontz, GAO’s director of information management issues, said that the “devil may be in the details” in assessing the report. Although the report concludes that the FOI Act “continues to be a valuable tool for citizens to obtain information about the operation and decisions of the federal government,” Koontz acknowledged that Congress’ requirements for the annual reports do not distinguish between categories of requests.

That would require a change in the requirements of the FOI Act or in the Department of Justice’s instructions to agencies on filing annual reports, Koontz said. The FOI Act requires federal agencies to send their annual reports to the Department of Justice which forwards them to Congress.

GAO based its analysis entirely on the annual reports to Congress from 25 agencies. It noted a 71 percent increase in numbers of requests received from 2002 to 2004, and a 14 percent increase in the backlog of requests from 2002 to 2004.

Four agencies account for 91 percent of all FOI Act requests made to the federal government, according to the report. Those include the Veterans Administration, which considers patient requests to be FOI requests and accounts for 46 per cent of the requests reported. The Social Security Administration, which includes citizen requests for their own or relatives’ entitlement information, accounts for 36 percent of the requests reported.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which includes in its count requests for Medicare and Medicaid information, accounts for 6 percent. The Department of Homeland Security, which processes requests for alien files, accounts for 4 percent. Their attorneys must request files from the department’s U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services through FOI procedures because they have no right to discovery of information in deportation proceedings.

The remaining 9 percent of requests studied came from the other 21 agencies whose reports were analyzed. GAO notes that the numbers of fully granted requests vary widely among agencies, with the Department of State, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Science Foundation fully releasing requested records in fewer than 20 percent of the requests they process. (GAO notes that in rounding the percentages the total exceeds 100 percent).

GAO said that Department of Justice guidance suggests to agencies that it is “good policy” to treat all first-party requests as both Privacy Act and FOI Act requests whether or not the requester cites either or both laws. Considering both acts would ensure that requesters seeking information about themselves have the fullest possible response to their inquiries, the Justice Department said.

(GAO-05-648T, Implementation of the Freedom of Information Act)RD

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