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FOIA Request Backlogs a ‘Continuing Concern’

foia_papersGovernment agencies are getting better at reporting specific statistics about their Freedom of Information Act operations, according to a report by the U.S. General Accountability Office.

In line with transparency efforts, Congress enacted the OPEN Government Act of 2007, which amended FOIA in several ways. Among other things, the act requires additional statistics on timeliness and backlog in the annual reports—including information on average processing times and ranges. The act requires agencies to break down their response times in much greater detail. These new requirements were reflected for the first time in the reports for fiscal year 2008.

These reports reflected a significant change in the guidance the Department of Justice provided to agencies in 2008 on preparing the annual reports. In addition to providing information on the new statistics required by the OPEN Government Act, this guidance directed agencies to omit certain Privacy Act requests from their statistics, which had previously been included. This change greatly impacted the statistics for certain agencies, such as the Social Security Administration, whose reported requests decreased by more than 18 million from 2007 to 2008.

Testifying before the Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives, and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform yesterday, Valerie C. Melvin, director of information management and human capital issues at GAO, said addressing backlogs in FOIA request processing is a “continuing concern.”

“The changes made to the requirements for reported statistics have made year-to-year comparisons of past years problematic, but the increased detail should provide a clearer picture of FOIA implementation in the years ahead, both at individual agencies and governmentwide,” Melvin said. “This type of information will be important in assessing the effect on FOIA processes of the Open Government plans called for in the recent Open Government Directive.”

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