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Federal Agencies Report Transparency Progress

Photo: World Bank
Photo: World Bank

Federal agencies are becoming more transparent by releasing more documents, making more information available online, and reducing backlogs of pending FOIA requests, according to a report by the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy

This spring marked the first time agencies submitted to the Department of Justice Chief FOIA Officer Reports describing the steps taken to improve transparency in accordance with the President’s FOIA Memorandum and the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines. The Office of Information Policy analyzed and prepared a summary of the reports, which shows agencies have made strides toward becoming more open.

“These 94 agencies have taken significant steps forward in providing the American people with the transparency they want and deserve,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “Much work needs to be done in the effort to open up the government’s FOIA process and improve its efficiency, but these results indicate we have made important strides in the right direction.”

The report noted that all agencies reported making advancements in implementing the presumption of openness, with over half having that progress rated as “remarkable.” Almost half of the 94 agencies reported divulging documents in discretionary releases – i.e., the documents were requested under the FOIA and the agency could legally have withheld information, but chose not to. Over half looked for opportunities to do so.

The report also highlighted how more information is being released to FOIA requesters. In 2009, the number of responses with released records increased overall. The number of partial releases increased by approximately 50,000 documents. Nearly 90 percent of agencies reported proactively producing material that has not yet been requested by the public.

A majority of agencies (95 percent), including all Cabinet agencies, can receive FOIA requests electronically, rather than merely via regular mail or other nontechnological methods. Ninety one percent said they track the requests electronically as well.

In terms of backlog, more than half of agencies either had no backlog in processing FOIA requests or reduced that backlog in 2009, and 85 percent reduced the age of the oldest request or had no backlogged request to close. 

Although concrete steps have been taken and real progress has been achieved in creating greater transparency, additional work remains to be done. The report provides guidance to agencies on the corrective measures that should be taken by agencies to ensure that all aspects of their FOIA operations are fully aligned with the president’s and attorney general’s vision of making this the most transparent administration in history.

OIP has also compiled a list of best practices to help agencies in implementing improvements in each of the five distinct areas encompassed by the President’s FOIA Memorandum and the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines. As agencies continue their work to further implement the President’s FOIA Memorandum and the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines even greater transparency will be achieved in the year ahead, the report noted.

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