Agencies continue to struggle with FOIA requests

Progress reducing the backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests has been spotty.

Some agencies have made progress in reducing their backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests since a 2009 directive, but the logjam has increased at other agencies, according to a watchdog report released Thursday.

Only about half the 16 agencies studied in the Government Accountability Office report managed to reduce the number of FOIA exemptions as urged by the Attorney General’s Office, the watchdog said.

Agencies are doing better at using technology to make information more readily available to the public, GAO said. All but one of the 16 agencies had made information in four key categories available online -- either in digital FOIA libraries or elsewhere on their websites, though it was often difficult to find information posted outside of FOIA libraries and agencies hadn’t done enough to direct people to that information, auditors noted.

Most agencies have implemented recommended technology to improve processing time for FOIA requests, but few have installed systems that allow for the electronic exchange of information between agency components, GAO said.

Increasing transparency has been a major initiative of the Obama administration, but officials say progress has been slow -- especially on governmentwide initiatives such as improving FOIA responsiveness.

Of the 16 agencies GAO reviewed, 10 reduced their FOIA backlogs between 2009 and 2011 and two saw no significant change. Backlogs increased at four agencies: the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the Navy, Customs and Border Protection, and the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service. While USCIS saw the largest increase in its backlog, it also had the largest increase in requests for information -- 62 percent, the watchdog said.

Agencies reduced FOIA backlogs by streamlining procedures for releasing information, such as no longer requiring headquarters reviews for some noncontroversial releases, detailing non-FOIA staff to review requests and negotiating with requesters to simplify complicated requests, GAO said.

“For example, the FBI negotiated with one requester to reduce the size of the request where it had located more than 37,000 pages responsive to the request,” the watchdog said. “Since each page would have to be checked before being released, the request would have required considerable time to process. Instead, the requester agreed to the FBI’s offer to provide faster delivery of 1,150 pages already processed under a similar, earlier request.”