March 10, 2014

A building block of American democracy is the idea that as citizens, we have a right to information about how our government works and what it does in our name. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires federal agencies to promptly respond to public requests for information unless disclosure of the requested information would harm a protected interest. Unfortunately, since its passage in 1966 and reform in 1974, federal agencies have failed to implement the law consistently, which can make it challenging for citizens to gain access to public information as the law guarantees.

This analysis evaluates the performance of the 15 federal agencies that received the greatest number of FOIA requests in fiscal year 2012. These agencies received over 90 percent of all information requests that year. We examined their performance in three key areas:

  1. Processing requests for information (the rate of disclosure, the fullness of information provided, and timeliness of the response);

  2. Establishing rules for information access (effectiveness of agency policy on withholding information and communicating with requesters); and

  3. Creating user-friendly websites (facilitating the flow of information to citizens, online services, and up-to-date reading rooms).

The results are sobering. None of the 15 agencies earned exemplary scores (an overall A grade), and only eight earned “passing grades” (60 or more out of a possible 100 points). The low scores are not due to impossibly high expectations. In each of three performance areas, at least one agency earned an A, showing that excellence is possible. But the fact that no agency was able to demonstrate excellence across all three areas illustrates the difficulty agencies seem to be having in consistently combining all the elements of an effective disclosure policy.

Overall Performance

In developing overall scores, an agency’s performance in actually getting information to the public is weighted most heavily. Half the overall score is based on an index of the agency’s ability to process information requests in a timely fashion. In addition, the rules an agency develops to shape its disclosure practices and the user-friendliness of the agency’s website determine the ease of citizen access to information; each of these areas accounts for a quarter of the overall grade an agency received.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) was the top performer, with a B grade. SSA performed exceptionally well at processing FOIA requests but earned relatively low scores for its rules and website. The Department of Justice (DOJ) scored second, based on strong grades for its rules and website, rather than the actual release of information. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came in third, also earning solid marks for its rules and websites, but a middling grade for processing requests. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) was fourth, with middling grades in each area. Only DOJ, EPA, and USDA received passing marks in all three areas examined.

The Departments of the Treasury, Transportation, and Health and Human Services, and the Securities and Exchange Commission received D or D- grades, failing at least one of the index elements.

Seven agencies received an overall failing grade: the Departments of Labor, Veterans Affairs, Defense, Homeland Security, and State, as well as the National Archives and Records Administration and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The State Department earned the lowest overall score of any agency, with a particularly low score for its request processing: a mere 17 percent.

Recommendations

Despite these disappointing scores, we are confident that successful FOIA implementation is possible. At least one agency has received an excellent score on every issue that was evaluated to create this scorecard. While every agency will need to develop its own unique plan for improvement, each can learn from the strong performers and the best practices identified in this report.

    Processing requests: Agencies can increase promptness and reduce backlogs by streamlining processing workflows, using proactive disclosure, and deploying information technology more effectively. Others may need more personnel to be more effective. Some agencies may need to train staff on disclosure to reduce the use of exemptions. The appeals process in some agencies should be reformed to ensure timely and objective reviews.

    Establishing effective disclosure rules: Many agencies continue to struggle with outdated disclosure rules and policies; only two of the reviewed agencies have updated their regulations since the 2007 amendments to FOIA. FOIA rules need to be updated, either through individual agency action or through a central set of FOIA regulations, which the Obama administration is considering. These updates should include a presumption of openness and clear procedures for implementing the foreseeable harm standard. All agencies should allow requesters at least 60 days to file an appeal when a request for information has been denied.

    Creating user-friendly interactive websites: Overall, agency performance on FOIA websites received the highest marks, indicating that federal agencies have been successfully integrating modern IT principles into their information management and disclosure practices. The several agencies that had low scores on this element could improve them by maintaining robust and updated electronic reading rooms with good search features, establishing full online requester services, and posting complete contact information for their FOIA officers.

Fulfilling the promise of full, timely public access to as much government information as possible is an ongoing, complex task that will require leadership, commitment, and organizational culture change.1 It is necessarily a team effort. Agency leadership needs to communicate to all their staff that responding to citizen requests is an important part of their work. Employees need to see disclosure as an essential part of the job of any federal agency and a core democratic value. And the administration, Congress, and agency decision makers have to ensure agencies have the staff and resources they need to process requests in a timely manner.

The administration and Congress can also take additional steps to strengthen FOIA implementation. The recently established FOIA ombudsman could have more impact if it were given greater independence and resources. Legislation should codify the administration’s important FOIA policies to ensure they are adopted across every agency and establish simple and fair submission, appeal, fee, and other procedures.

By identifying current best practices and solutions, as well as existing shortcomings, we hope to encourage public officials to continue to improve the policies and practices of their agencies to ensure the public’s right to know is guaranteed.