Open, Accountable Government
Strides and Stumbles: Mixed Results for the Obama Administration on Freedom of Information
The Obama administration has continued to make progress on implementation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In fiscal year (FY) 2011, the administration processed more FOIA requests than in either of the past two years. In fact, agencies processed considerably more requests in FY 2011 than they received altogether the previous year. Nevertheless, the surge in FOIA requests outpaced the administration's increase in processing. This resulted in a growth of the administration's combined FOIA backlog.
In this analysis, OMB Watch lays out several key strengths and weaknesses of the Obama administration's track record on FOIA during FY 2011:
- The agencies processed six percent more requests in 2011 than 2010, bringing the number of FOIA requests processed to the highest level since 2005.
- The percentage of requests denied based on exemptions declined by seven percent, bringing exemption use to its lowest level since 2008.
- Use of the most discretionary exemptions, exemptions 2 (internal agency rules) and 5 (interagency memos), decreased sharply, largely due to decreases at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
- Exemption 2 decreased by 63 percent, bringing it to its lowest levels since 2003.
- Exemption 5 decreased by 14 percent, bringing it to its lowest levels since 2004.
- The agencies' combined backlog grew by 19 percent due to a surge in requests. However, backlogs remain at their lowest level since 2003.
- Exemption 3 (information that is prohibited from disclosure by another federal law) saw the greatest increase in use of any exemption, climbing by 64 percent. The increase in exemption 3 is due to surges at the State Department (for information relating to visa applications) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (for information relating to unlawful employment practices under the Americans with Disabilities Act).
Moving forward, OMB Watch urges the administration to pick up the pace of responding to requests and to further reduce the use of FOIA exemptions so that the media, advocates, and everyday Americans can get access to the public information they need to ensure that government is working in the public interest.