Agencies receive failing grades for processing FOIA requests

Sean Moulton, director of Open Government Program, Center for Effective Government

Michael O'Connell | April 17, 2015 6:22 pm

Agencies are still falling short when it comes to consistently implementing the rules and procedures set down in the Freedom of Information Act. That’s according to a new report released Monday by the Center for Effective Government (CEG).

The law, which was enacted 48 years ago and reformed in 1974, was put in place to ensure greater government transparency by requiring federal agencies to respond promptly to requests for information from members of the public.

CEG evaluated the responsiveness of the 15 agencies that receive 90 percent of all FOIA requests. CEG issued a letter grade based on an agency’s performance in three areas: the speed and completeness with which requests were processed; establishing rules for the public to access information; and the overall utility of the agency’s FOIA website. Based on those three grades, CEG gave each agency an overall letter grade. (See chart below).

None of the agencies received an overall “outstanding” grade of “A,” although many agencies received an “A” in at least one of the performance areas.

(Story continues after chart).

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Agency

Processing Results

Disclosure Rules

Quality of FOIA Website

Overall Score

Social Security Administration

107% (A+)

46% (F)

70% (C-)

83% (B)

Department of Justice

69% (D+)

92% (A)

95% (A)

81% (B-)

Environmental Protection Agency

69% (D+)

88% (B+)

85% (B)

78% (C+)

Department of Agriculture

81% (B-)

79% (C+)

65% (D)

77% (C)

Department of Transportation

71% (C-)

67% (D)

50% (F)

65% (D)

Securities and Exchange Commission

73% (C)

58% (F)

55% (F)

65% (D)

Department of the Treasury

67% (D)

83% (B)

40% (F)

64% (D)

Department of Health and Human Services

63% (D)

38% (F)

80% (B-)

61% (D-)

National Archives and Records Administration

48% (F)

50% (F)

90% (B-)

59% (F)

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

67% (D)

33% (F)

65% (D)

58% (F)

Department of Labor

38% (F)

88% (B+)

60% (D-)

56% (F)

Department of Veterans Affairs

44% (F)

63% (D)

60% (D-)

53% (F)

Department of Defense

54% (F)

38% (F)

57% (F)

51% (F)

Department of Homeland Security

33% (F)

79% (C+)

60% (D-)

51% (F)

Department of State

17% (F)

33% (F)

80% (B-)

37% (F)

Sean Moulton, director of CEG’s Open Government Program, told In Depth with Francis Rose that the study was weighted 50 percent for processing and 25 percent each for rules and website.

“Let’s face it, if you’re not doing good on the requests, you’re not doing good on FOIA,” he said.

To evaluate how well an agency was processing requests, CEG tried to look at the most fundamental aspects of processing, such as timeliness, how much information was being disclosed and how effective the appeals process was for the public.

The Social Security Administration received the highest overall grade of 83 percent (B), while the State Department received the lowest, 37 percent (F).

SSA did exceptionally well when it came to processing FOIA requests, receiving 107 percent (A+), but performed poorly when it came to establishing rules for information access, 46 percent (F). It also performed below average — 70 percent (C-) — in the creating a user-friendly FOIA website.

By comparison, State, the agency with the lowest overall grade, received 80 percent (B-) for its website, but posted failing grades in processing requests and rules disclosure.

Last December, CEG issued a report to help agencies improve their FOIA regulations. That report looked at the language dozens of agencies were using in their regulations to identify which provisions were the most useful when it came to implementing FOIA.

“We’re not looking at things in some sort of glorified, ideal system,” Moulton said. “These are all things that some agencies are already doing. The real problem seemed to be that agencies struggled to be consistent across all three areas.”

State was not the only agency to receive an overall failing grade. It was joined by National Archives and Records Administration, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the departments of Labor, Veterans Affairs, Defense and Homeland Security.

In its report, CEG noted security-related agencies, such as DoD and DHS, tended to score lower when it came to processing FOIA requests. However, just because those agencies deal with secure information doesn’t mean they can’t strive to be more transparent in some areas, the report stated.

“Many security-related agencies hold large amounts of non-security information that can be heavily requested, such as records related to disaster response held by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), located within the Department of Homeland Security,” the report said. “One could also argue that it is even more important for security-related agencies to have good rules and useful websites.”

Despite the preponderance of low scores, the good news, according to Moulton, is that the agencies can improve their scores very easily.

“It’s not hard to fix a lot of these problems on these websites, putting up contact information or putting up a reading room where information that other people have requested and has been released can be seen,” he said. “These are relatively easy fixes. The same with the regulations. These are provisions that other agencies have. So, if agencies update their regs and go with some of these best practices, they can get that in a couple of months.”

Other steps agencies could take to increase the efficiency of their FOIA request processing include publishing online indexes of disclosed records to cut down on the duplication of requests; adopting basic communication commitments within their FOIA rules and establishing a time limit for filing appeals.

“It’s going to take the most work for agencies to improve their processing,” Moulton said. “But, the reality is if agencies see this as an investment and not just a flat-out expenditure for some bureaucratic check box, but an investment in communicating better with the public, it’s really going to pay dividends for them down the road. The processing itself will become less expensive over the long term and many of these requests are in the best interest of the agency.”

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