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GAO examines federal compliance with Electronic FOI Act

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Sep 25, 2002    

GAO examines federal compliance with Electronic FOI Act

  • An August report by the General Accounting Office based primarily on annual FOI Act reports from federal agencies found that backlogs continue to build and agencies need to do a better job of providing online information.

Federal agencies still have room for improvement when it comes to implementing the Electronic FOI Act, according to a General Accounting Office study released Sept. 25. The study — “Information Management: Update on Implementation of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments” — examined self-reported FOI Act annual reports from 25 agencies.

The study found a growing backlog of unprocessed requests at most agencies, while the number of requests has held steady or declined for most agencies.

Although most agencies reported that they processed simple requests within the required 20 days, other agencies reported much higher processing times. The Department of Energy, for example, reported in fiscal year 2001 that the median number of days for simple requests to be processed was 211. The median represents the midpoint at which half the requests took longer and half the requests took fewer than that number of days. The Department of State reported a median of 157 days to process simple requests in fiscal year 2001. The FOI Act does not require agencies to report their average processing times.

According to the GAO report, agencies are still inconsistent in how they report their annual FOI Act results, making it difficult to look at changes over time. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development reported its processing times for 1999 and 2000 in aggregate. In 2001, it separated them into categories. This eliminated the ability for someone to compare processing times over the three-year time period.

For the study, the GAO also interviewed FOI Act requesters and agency FOI Act staff to study the impact of September 11 on the FOI Act: “Agency officials characterized the effects on FOIA implementation as relatively minor. … In contrast, members of the requester community expressed general concern about information dissemination and access to government in light of removal of information from government Web sites after Sept. 11.”

The impact of September 11 on EFOIA, however, will be clearer next year when the agency reports covering fiscal year 2002 are released.

The report found that while agencies are making efforts to put information on their Web sites, improvements are still needed: “Agencies are not devoting sufficient attention to the on-line availability of materials and ensuring that Web site content is adequately maintained, including accuracy and currency of the material and Web site links.”

The Department of Justice, charged along with the Office of Management and Budget with FOI Act oversight, has made strides to implement earlier GAO recommendations outlined in a March 2001 report. The Justice department provided a guide and training to help agencies improve their FOI Act reports. The department also issued guidance on providing information online.

“FOIA makes government work better,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who along with Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) requested the report.

“In times of heightened security, the tendency to close doors and conduct the government’s business in secret is natural,” Leahy said in a Sept. 25 statement. “Secrecy can become addictive, and that is a danger we have to guard against. The nation needs a robust FOIA in times of peace, but also in times of war. The Freedom of Information Act is the people’s window on their government, showing where it is doing things right, but also where it can do better.”

Horn heads the Subcommittee on Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations of the House Committee on Government Reform. Leahy and Horn were the chief authors of the EFOIA Amendments of 1996, which directed federal agencies to make more information available electronically and to expedite requests.

GAO continues to examine the impact of these new FOI Act policies at Leahy’s request.

(GAO-02-493 Information Management: Update on Implementation of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments) JL

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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