Feds take longer than ever to answer FOIA requests

Citizens, groups and corporations are putting in fewer requests for information from the federal government, but it’s taking longer to get an answer and they get turned down more often, a study reported Friday.

In a study of 13 Cabinet departments and nine agencies, the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government found that the number of unprocessed requests rose from 104,225 at the end of fiscal 2004 to 148,603 at the end of fiscal 2005 on Sept. 30, 2005.

Meantime, the number of requests that were processed between 2004 and 2005 dropped from 522,817 to 477,937. As a result, unprocessed requests rose from 20 percent of the total processed to 31 percent.

Full or partial releases of the information requested declined from 67 percent of all requests in 2004 to 63 percent in 2005.

“This study paints a very bleak picture for the Freedom of Information Act,” said Rick Blum of the Sunshine in Government Initiative. “The law is having a mid-life crisis at age 40.”

The federal Freedom of Information Act marks its 40th anniversary on July 4.

“Congress and the executive branch need to give this report a very good look,” said Blum, whose organization is a coalition of nine news media groups, including The Associated Press and the coalition that produced the report.

Blum lamented the failure of Congress to enact a bipartisan proposal last year that would have streamlined administration of the act and made clear when Congress was exempting data from it.

At the Justice Department, which oversees governmentwide enforcement of the act, spokeswoman Gina Talamona said an executive order issued by President Bush on Dec. 14, 2005, “recognizes the need for agencies to improve on their backlogs of pending FOIA requests and calls upon them to reduce or eliminate them.”

The order requires agencies to report on their progress by Feb. 1, 2007.

The coalition study exempted from its conclusions the data from the Health and Human Services Department, the Veterans Affairs Department and the Social Security Administration because more than 90 percent of their requests are from individuals seeking their personal data rather than from third parties.

The group said HHS, VA and SSA grant almost all requests and do so within a few days.

Comparing the 2005 data with 2000, the last year before the Bush administration took office, the coalition study found that the number of government employees working on FOIA requests in the 22 agencies studied declined by 23 percent, from 4,288 to 3,315.

Talamona said the governmentwide figures, including the 22 agencies and HHS, VA and SSA, showed a slight increase in FOIA work force during the Bush administration, from 4,925 in 2001 to 5,039 in 2004.

The coalition study found the worst backlogs at the Securities and Exchange Commission and Housing and Urban Development Department, where unprocessed requests in 2005 represented 131 percent and 127 percent of the number of requests actually processed that year.

Unprocessed requests as a percentage of processed requests improved from 2004 to 2005 at the Energy, Interior and Treasury departments, and at the Archives, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, SEC and Small Business Administration.

Among agencies with more than 20,000 annual requests, the best performance in 2005 was turned in by the Labor and Agriculture Departments, where unprocessed requests amounted to 3 and 4 percent, respectively, of processed requests.

Waiting time also increased. More agencies showed greater median response times in 2005 than those who reported taking less time to tell requesters whether they will or won’t get documents they sought.

The delays for some of the most complex requests grew substantially. The SEC said median waiting time for its 1,099 complex requests was 410 working days, more than double the median wait a year earlier. There are 261 federal work days in a year.

One Agriculture Department component reported its median wait time for complex requests was 1,277 work days. A Justice Department unit put its response time for complex queries at 863 days.


On the Net:

The study: http://www.sunshineweek.org/files/cjogfoiarpt06.pdf

© 2006 The Associated Press