FOIA backlog grows even as agencies process more requests

Monday - 9/10/2012, 5:32am EDT

Federal agencies processed more than 631,000 requests for government records under the Freedom of Information Act in fiscal 2011, 5 percent more than the year before. But the number of backlogged requests government-wide nonetheless shot up from less than 70,000 to more than 83,000.

The growing backlog is due in part to a significant increase in the number of FOIA requests sent to agencies in 2011. Submissions went from 597,000 in 2010 to 644,000 in 2011, an 8 percent increase. While the government as a whole dedicated 9 percent more full-time staff to FOIA processing and spent almost $20 million more on FOIA-related activities than the year before, backlogged requests nonetheless grew by 20 percent.

The figures come from the Justice Department's 2011 summary of annual FOIA reports, a compilation of data contained in each agency's yearly performance report under the 1966 open government law.

DoJ reported the government-wide backlog is concentrated in a handful of large departments, most notably the Department of Homeland Security, which had more than 42,000 overdue requests in the processing pipeline. The State Department came in second with 8,078 backlogged requests, followed by the Defense Department with 7,260.

In its own annual 2011 FOIA report, DHS blamed its backlog on a massive spike in requests to three department components: Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement saw their FOIA requests almost double in number compared to the year before, while requests to Citizenship and Immigration Services went up by 20 percent. The department as a whole saw 45,000 more requests than in 2010.

Erring on side of transparency

Melanie Pustay, the director of DOJ's Office of Information Policy (OIP), which serves as a coordinator and overseer of the government's overall FOIA program, told Federal News Radio in an August interview that government-wide mandates to err on the side of transparency and publish more information have resulted in more FOIA requests rather than fewer.

"It's been really interesting to me that despite the fact that agencies are making so much more material available on their websites proactively, it hasn't reduced the number of FOIA requests, which is what we all assumed would happen," she said. "If anything, it's getting people more interested in government information and they're making more requests. And those requests now tend to be more complicated."

OIP urged agencies in April to make it a priority to respond to their 10 oldest unanswered FOIA requests. On that score, many of the original requesters might well consider their open government requests to be ancient history.

The government's oldest pending FOIA request, to the National Archives and Records Administration, dates back to 1992. DoD also has several pending requests dating to the 1990s. And 15 more agencies still are processing requests that are at least a decade old.

Overall in 2011, agencies gave a favorable response to just under 70 percent of all FOIA requests they processed, releasing at least some of the data the requesters wanted. In 14 percent of all cases, agencies claimed they didn't have any records that matched what a citizen had asked for, the most common reason for denial.

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