Oversight committee: Administration earns C- for FOIA management

Thursday - 3/15/2012, 2:01pm EDT

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has given the Obama administration a C- for management under the Freedom of Information Act.

"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," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the committee chairman. "The finding that many FOIA offices struggle to demonstrate transparency about very basic information is troubling and necessitates greater scrutiny."

Auditors based their C- grade on transparency work by 17 cabinet-level departments. They said smaller agencies that handled fewer FOIA requests fared slightly better. Auditors evaluated how agencies track and make decisions about FOIA requests, but they did not examine whether agencies are meeting their legal responsibilities.

"The committee found that the three agencies that receive the most requests — the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Justice — were all missing critical information from their FOIA tracking logs," according to a committee statement. "The Department of Justice only provided information for 3 of its 40 components that respond to FOIA requests."

Auditors released their findings in the tail end of Sunshine Week, a national push to promote open government. And the news comes amid a flurry of other reports evaluating the administration's open government efforts.

On Wednesday, watchdog group OMB Watch reported mixed results for agencies' transparency efforts. And earlier this week, a representative for the Project on Government Oversight called those efforts two-sided".

More bad news for the Justice Department

Committee auditors gave DOJ a D for its FOIA management. The grade is another black mark for the Justice Department, which, in February, received an award for the worst open-government performance in 2011.

In giving the "distinction", known as the Rosemary Award, the National Security Archive said the department has contradicted the administration's pledges for transparency and helps explain a "performance gap between excellent policy and 'same-old' practice".

On the flip side, DOJ has been vocal about its efforts to improve transparency. In February, the department's director of information policy told Federal News Radio it managed to reduce its FOIA backlog by 26 percent. In the past three years, DOJ has received about 180,000 FOIA requests, the director said. And of the requests processed in 2011, the department released in full or in part more than 94 percent.

Other agencies receiving bad grades

The committee report also assigned poor FOIA management grades for other key departments and agencies including:

  • The Office of Management and Budget: F
  • Commerce Department: F
  • Defense Department: D

Auditors asked agencies to provide all FOIA tracking logs in electronic format, but not all had the ability, the committee said. Others simply refused.

Good news for other agencies

Not all of the news is bad, however. A number of cabinet-level agencies and departments and received top grades:

  • Education Department
  • Energy Department
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Labor Department
  • Transportation Department
  • Treasury Department
About eight in 10 non-cabinet agencies received top grades.

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