FOIA backlog almost doubles within a year

By Sean McCalley
Federal News Radio

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that FOIA requests cost the federal government more than $461 billion last year, and $392 billion in 2009. The correct figures are $461 million and $392 million, respectively.

The backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests grew for the second straight year. But the 70 percent spike in unprocessed FOIA requests easily dwarfs any year-to-year increase over the last half decade.

Between FY 2012 and 2013, the backlog grew by about 23,000 requests, or 32 percent. At the time, it was the largest backlog increase in the past five years.

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In its annual FOIA report for fiscal 2014, the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy outlined a severe spike in unprocessed requests that almost doubled the backlog. Between FY 2013 and 2014, the logjam ballooned from a total of 96,000 to 160,000 requests.

But comparatively few agencies are actually responsible for the backlog. According to the report, 29 of 100 agencies don’t have any backlog at all, and 59 agencies have a backlog of fewer than 10 requests.

Only six agencies are responsible for more than 92 percent of the overall backlog, said DOJ:

  • Homeland Security Department (103,480)
  • State Department (10,045)
  • National Archives and Records Administration (9,361)
  • Justice Department (8,939)
  • Defense Department (8,444)
  • Health and Human Services Department (7,195)

“A distinct aspect of backlog reduction involves the closing of the oldest pending requests at an agency,” wrote DOJ in the report. The 10 oldest claims are all in the backlog at NARA, and date back more than two decades, from 1993 to 1995.

Increased demand can’t keep up with shrinking staffs

DOJ’s numbers don’t quite match up to an earlier report from the Associated Press, released during the annual Sunshine Week to spotlight government transparency. It reported the backlog as more than 200,000 — a 55 percent increase from the year before. A smaller percentage increase than DOJ’s report, but a larger total backlog.

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DOJ said federal agencies saw a record number of new FOIA requests last year, at 714,231. At the same time, federal agencies are dealing with shrinking staffs and budgets to process them. Its report said the almost 4,000 people dedicated to processing requests “is the lowest reported staffing level in the last six fiscal years.” Last year, governmentwide FOIA staffs fell by almost 9 percent, or 558 people.

On the bright side, the staff that remains is more efficient at processing simple requests. The average time it takes federal agencies to sift through and release those is down by about 4 percent, or 21 days.

But overall, the increased demand and shrinking staff for the FOIA process is seriously undermining the White House’s 2009 Open Government Directive, which aims to reduce the FOIA backlog by at least 10 percent every year.

The price tag is going up, too. Last year, FOIA requests cost the federal government more than $461 million. That’s an increase of 3.4 percent since last year.

In 2009, the total cost was $392 million — 15 percent less than today.

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