Agency FOIA backlogs creep up despite governmentwide reduction

While agencies made a dent in the overall backlog of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests last year, new data from the Justice Department shows a significant number of agencies saw their own backlogs increase.

In its annual chief FOIA officers report released Thursday, the Office of Information Policy found that 32 agencies — half of the agencies in the “high and medium-volume” category for FOIA requests — saw their backlogs increase from fiscal 2016 to 2017.

Nate Jones,  the director of the Freedom of Information Act Project for the National Security Archive, said in an email that the latest FOIA scorecard “does accurately reflect the state of FOIA — it is working poorly for most requesters.”

Agencies received an unprecedented 800,000-plus FOIA requests last year, and yet more than 400 FOIA offices, spread out across 116 agencies, reduced the backlog of unfulfilled requests by 3.2 percent last year.

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The scorecard shows that all 27 of the large agencies reported that at least 80 percent of their FOIA workforce attended training sessions in 2016.

Moving toward proactive disclosure

The report also highlights instances where agencies, in order to get out from under their FOIA backlogs, have taken steps towards “proactive disclosures,” or instances where agencies release documents or data that pose an interest to the public.

The General Services Administration’s FOIA office, for example, coordinated with reporters on how the agency could release records about the presidential transition “in the most effective and proactive manner.”

In May, a federal district judge ruled that GSA wrongfully withheld documents from FOIA requests regarding the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C.

The report also highlights GSA work with the requester community to proactively post annual information about government real estate and office space, agencies’ vehicle fleets, acquisition data, and federal employee travel and purchase card records.

At the Commerce Department, the Census Bureau is also looking at outreach tools that will allow frequent requesters to stay in the loop.

“The staff plans to use tools that allow them to customize a FOIA request list of frequent FOIA requesters, in order to let them know directly about new releases that may be of interest to them,” the report said.

Since 2015, the FOIA statute requires agencies to publicly post online any records that have been requested through FOIA at least three times.

In order to further reduce the backlog, Jones said agencies should be “empowering FOIA people,” with more training, if necessary, “to have the authority to release docs,” and added that agencies should provide better tracking for FOIA requests to determine bottlenecks in the process.

The Associated Press reported earlier this year that out of the more than 800,000 FOIA requests filed in 2017, 78 percent of the responses contained censored documents or were answered with nothing.