WASHINGTON (Feb.15,2007)– The federal government's overall FOIA performance is at the lowest point since reporting began in 1998, despite an executive order mandating better service for Freedom of Information Act requests, according to new research from the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government.

The CJOG analysis of FOIA reports from 26 federal agencies and departments found a 138 percent increase in the request backlog from 1998 to 2005. Requestors also are waiting longer for a response, then hearing "no" more often, and losing administrative appeals more often. At the same time, the cost of processing FOIA requests kept rising even as staffing hit an eight-year low.

"Comparing reports year-to-year and across agencies – which no agency does in its reporting – it's clear that in many cases FOIA simply isn't working as intended," said CJOG Coordinator Pete Weitzel. "The latest reports suggest President Bush's 2005 executive order hasn't affected performance. That makes the need for legislative reform more urgent."

Among the findings:

  • The backlog is getting worse. The backlog of requests – the percentage of requests unprocessed at the end of the year – hit a record 31% in 2005, a whopping 138 percent above the 1998 level.
  • People are waiting longer for information. In 1998, only five of the 26 agencies reported a "median" response time greater than the 20 working-day statutory requirement in handling "simple" requests. In 2005, 13 failed, and none met the deadline for handling "complex" requests.
  • Agencies said "no" more often. The percentage of requesters who received all or even part of the information sought fell 31 percent among agencies reporting so far reported for 2006. That’s on top of an overall 6 percent decline in 2005, when 52,398 fewer requesters than in 1998 got any of the information they sought.
  • Those initially denied information got less relief on appeal. The agencies granted an average of 21 percent fewer appeals from 2002 through 2005 than they did in the last three years of the Clinton administration. The 13 agencies reporting so far in 2006 were even less disposed to grant an appeal, cutting their appellate grants by 6 percent.
  • FOIA costs continue to rise. FOIA requests hit a highpoint in 2000 and have fallen modestly since then. The cost of handling FOIA requests, however, rose 85 percent from 2000 to 2005.
  • Staffing is down percent despite the growing backlog. In 2005, agencies reported FOIA staffs 20 percent smaller than in 1998. In 2006, however, six of the 13 agencies reporting so far, all with double digit backlogs, have added staff. Among them is the Environmental Protection Agency, which increased staff by 50 percent and cut its backlog from 27 percent to 16 percent.
The Coalition collected the FOIA performance reports from the 15 Cabinet-level departments and 15 agencies dating back to 1998. It analyzed in depth the performance records of 26 of those departments and agencies, excluding the Social Security Administration and three others that primarily respond to requests from individuals seeking personal data where no discretionary decisions are involved. The 2006 performance reports of the 13 agencies that had filed by Feb. 9 were also reviewed.

To view the entire report and charts, go to the CJOG Web site, www.cjog.net.

[source:]Society of Professional Journalists: Page Not Found

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