A building block of American democracy is the idea that citizens have a right to information about how their government works and what it does in their name. However, citizen access to public information was only established by law in 1966 with the passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The law has since been strengthened and improved over the years, and FOIA currently requires federal agencies to formally respond to requests for information within 20 working days or potentially face a lawsuit. While there are exemptions that agencies can use to avoid the disclosure of sensitive information or information that violates privacy rights, agencies processed over half a million FOIA requests in 2012. In about 41 percent of these cases, the information requested was released “in full” with no parts “redacted” – i.e., clean, complete documents with no blacked-out parts were provided to the person who requested the information.

How does this compare to past years and past administrations? How well has President Obama met his goal of being the most transparent administration in history with regard to access to public information? This report examines the processing of FOIA requests from 25 major federal agencies in 2012 and reviews the processing of FOIA requests by agencies since 1998.

Requests Rose and Processing Improved

Overall, requests for public information peaked in the last years of the Clinton administration, fell steadily during the Bush administration, and began to rise in the first term of the Obama administration. Agencies received 11,000 more requests in 2012 than in 2011, and yet processed 39,000 more requests than in 2011; more than 512,000 FOIA requests were processed in 2012.

Unprocessed Requests Declined and Backlogs Were Reduced

“Pending” requests (unprocessed requests) peaked in 2006 and have since fallen. While the Obama administration has higher processing rates than the Bush administration, the Clinton administration had higher request levels and fewer unprocessed requests than either of the subsequent administrations. The Obama administration has made steady process in reducing the number of unprocessed requests during its time in office, however.

Nearly 12,000 fewer requests were pending at the end of 2012 – a 12 percent decline from 2011.The bulk of the change can be attributed to a single department, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS receives far more requests than the other 24 federal agencies examined, and the number of requests it received continued to grow in 2012. However, because DHS processed more than enough requests to compensate, its backlog fell by 30 percent between 2011 and 2012.

At the end of 2009, President Obama ordered the heads of federal agencies to reduce their backlog of FOIA requests by 10 percent per year. Of the 11 agencies with significant backlogs, only two met the percent reduction goal each year: the Departments of the Interior and the Treasury. Two agencies, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Archives and Records Administration, failed to meet the backlog reduction goal in all three years. (Denying a request for information counts as processing the request.)

Fewer Releases Include All the Information Requested

Although the number of unprocessed requests has declined, the use of partial releases increased in 2012. Partial releases began increasing during the Bush administration, and the Obama administration has not reduced the practice. In fact, between 2008 and 2012, the percentage of FOIA requests that were partially granted grew by almost seven percent to nearly 54 percent. Because outright denials were infrequent, the increase in partial releases resulted in a decline in the release of full documents. The percentage of fully granted FOIA requests rose in 2010 but dipped in 2011 and fell further in 2012 to the lowest level on record – just under 41 percent of FOIA requests processed provided full and complete information to the requester.

Exemptions Were Used to Withhold Records More Often

In 2012, agencies claimed exemptions significantly more often than in the previous year. Three categories accounted for over 70 percent of all exemptions: personal privacy, law enforcement personal privacy, and law enforcement techniques for prosecution. Each was used about 100,000 times in 2012.

The use of the internal rules exemption, once among the highest-used exemptions, was almost entirely eliminated (92 percent reduction) after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling limited how broadly the exemption could be applied. However, a significant increase in the use of the interagency memos exemption suggests that some agencies may have expanded their use of this exemption to withhold records that had previously been claimed as internal rules.

The Cost of FOIA Processing Varied Significantly Across Agencies

The average cost of processing a FOIA request varied widely across the 25 agencies examined here. The highest costs per processed request in 2012 were found at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ($8,900) and Department of Energy ($3,800). Several agencies were able to keep costs per request under $200, including the Department of Homeland Security, which receives and processes more requests than any other agency. The 10 agencies with the highest cost per request all processed fewer than 10,000 requests. This suggests there may be some economies of scale in processing FOIA requests.