Agencies poorly track FOIA requests, report says

Agencies poorly track FOIA requests, report says
By Ed O'Keefe

Obama made government transparency concerns a top priority of his early days as president. (J. Scott Applewhite - AP) Eleven of 17 Cabinet-level agencies fail to fully comply with federal law requiring complete inventories of public records requests, and most large agencies earn a subpar grade for records management, according to a new congressional report.

The report, set for release Thursday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is meant to draw attention to government transparency issues during this year’s Sunshine Week, an annual event designed to raise awareness about access to public records.

The report does not probe how often agencies grant or deny Freedom of Information Act requests, but instead focuses on a key facet of FOIA law requiring agencies to track every request made by people or organizations for public information. The committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), asked 100 large and small federal agencies to provide information on their FOIA tracking systems. Each agency received a letter grade based on a seven-point criteria, including whether agencies produced digitized records that included the date of a request, the name of the requester and a description of the information requested.

“A number of agencies demonstrated that they are able to track basic information about requests, while others either would not or could not provide such information as requested,” the report said. The fact that several agencies “struggle to demonstrate transparency about very basic information is troubling and necessitates greater scrutiny.”

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) (Stephen Morton - Bloomberg) Among Cabinet-level departments, six earned an A grade or better: the departments of Education, Energy, Labor, Transportation, Treasury and the Environmental Protection Agency. Four departments — Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Interior and the Office of Management and Budget — earned Fs for failing to produce complete, digitized records. Other large agencies earned a B, C or D, and when averaged together, larger departments earned a combined C- minus average. Averaged together, the report said large and small agencies earned a B- overall.

In response, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Wednesday that President Obama remains committed to “unprecedented openness in government” and earned an award last year for his efforts from the organizers of Sunshine Week. (Flying in the face of the spirit of the award, Obama accepted it during an off-the-record, closed-door Oval Office meeting.)

“While creating a more open government requires sustained effort, our continued efforts seek to promote accountability, provide people with useful information and harness the dispersed knowledge of the American people,” Schultz said.

A separate report released Wednesday found that the Obama administration processed more information requests in fiscal 2011 than in either of the previous two years. Despite the surge, the government’s FOIA backlog grew last year because agencies could not process requests fast enough, according to the report published by the nonpartisan OMB Watch, which tracks government management and fiscal issues.

The group said most of the backlog is the fault of the Department of Homeland Security, which saw a 35 percent surge in FOIA requests in fiscal 2011, mostly for information regarding immigration and customs issues.

Issa’s report, which accounts for how well agencies track FOIA requests, found that the three agencies receiving the most requests — DHS, the Pentagon and the Justice Department — were all missing information in their FOIA tracking logs.

Smaller agencies also suffer from shoddy records management: The Board of Broadcasting Governors listed 182 total FOIA requests, but couldn’t say whether records were ever produced for 135 of the requests.

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