Analysis Finds Progress, Some Stumbles in Obama Administration's FOIA Transparency Efforts

3/14/2012

PRESS RELEASE
-For Immediate Release-
March 14, 2012

Contact: Brian Gumm, (202) 683-4812, bgumm@ombwatch.org

Analysis Finds Progress, Some Stumbles in Obama Administration's FOIA Transparency Efforts

WASHINGTON, March 14, 2012—Today, OMB Watch released an analysis of the Obama administration's implementation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) based on new agency reports. The administration has continued to make progress in this area: in fiscal year (FY) 2011, the Obama 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.

"After the Bush administration wrought havoc on the FOIA system, the Obama administration is still rebuilding," said Sean Moulton, Director of Federal Information Policy at OMB Watch. "We're glad to see generally increased openness, but more work needs to be done to usher in the type of government openness and transparency that the American people want and deserve."

The bulk of the trends can be attributed to a single department, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS receives far and away more requests than any other federal agency, and the number of requests it received surged even higher in FY 2011, increasing by 35 percent. The vast majority of the increase was in the form of additional requests to DHS' immigration and customs divisions. DHS was unable to cope with such a massive increase, causing its backlog to more than double.

At the same time, DHS markedly curbed its withholding under FOIA, reducing its use of exemptions by 15 percent. For both backlogs and exemptions, the change at DHS alone was greater than the change at all agencies combined.

Several key findings of the analysis include:

Strengths

  • 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 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.

 

Weaknesses

  • 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).

 

"This year saw dramatic swings in the administration's FOIA numbers, but not all agencies were affected equally," Moulton added. "A few agencies made big leaps forward or backward, but most were basically jogging in place. The administration needs to pick up the pace 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."

The full text of the analysis, including graphs and methodology, is available at http://www.ombwatch.org/fy2011foiaanalysis.

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