WASHINGTON — President Bush’s order more than two years ago to improve response time has barely made a dent in the huge backlog of unanswered requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
At the same time, an audit by the National Security Archive found that the Bush administration has provided citizens someone to talk to about how long it is going to take to get the government records they want or to be turned down.
The archive, a private research group at the George Washington University, on March 16 released its seventh audit of the 1967 law that gives people the power to request information from federal government files. The audit of 90 government agencies found mixed results from the Dec. 14, 2005, presidential executive order directing agencies to clear the backlog and be more responsive to requesters.
"Behind its ambitious facade, the order lacked both carrot and stick," the audit said, because it provided no additional money to do the job and no way to force agencies to set substantial goals or step up their efforts if they fell short.
"Many of the same old scofflaw agencies are still shirking their responsibilities to the public," said Tom Blanton, director of the archive, whose FOIA audits are funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
The archive found that unanswered requests government-wide dropped just over 2%, from 217,000 to 212,000, from the end of 2005 to the end of 2007.
Of those agencies with backlogs, 31% even saw pending requests rise during the two years, including some agencies that significantly reduced very old unanswered requests but saw gains wiped out by a surge of new requests.
Some agencies did well:
- The Energy Department focused on requests more than a year old and instituted biweekly reports from its field offices to top headquarters FOIA officials. It cut the agency-wide backlog from 1,162 requests to 438.
- The CIA set up a task force to tackle the oldest requests. Requests more than five years old were cut 25% in 2006 and 74% in 2007.
- The Health and Human Services Department added staff but an unexpected increase in new requests prevented it from achieving its planned 5% reduction in 2006. It did achieve a 24% reduction during 2007.
The Homeland Security Department set an ambitious goal of eliminating its entire backlog by the end of 2007, but instead saw it grow from 82,544 to 83,661 requests.
The FBI failed to meet its reduction goals for 2006 and 2007 and twice pushed them back a year.
The audit particularly criticized the Treasury Department for trying to "wait out the requester." Treasury sent letters to requesters requiring them to reaffirm their interest in the data within 15 business days.
The archive, a major FOIA requester, received such letters from Treasury for 42 outstanding requests. In 27 cases, Treasury sent a second letter after the archive responded it was still interested. For 10 requests all over a decade old, Treasury said the files had been transferred to the National Archives and a new request would have to be submitted there.
Treasury closed 718 requests over two years because the requester no longer wanted the documents or because the department's letters went unanswered or were returned because of outdated addresses.
"That many agencies have made significant improvements without additional funding is a real credit to the professionals who work there," said Melanie Poustay of the Justice Department. She heads the Office of Information and Privacy, which advises all government agencies on how to obey FOIA and suggests improvements in the FOIA plans Bush ordered each agency to prepare.
"Obviously, though, backlog reduction is an area that continued to need attention," she said.
The audit praised Bush’s order for requiring each agency to set up an FOIA Service Center that people can call to track the progress of their requests; an FOIA public liaison to take complaints about the service center; and a chief FOIA officer to manage agency efforts.
The archive sent FOIA requests to all 90 agencies. At 51 of 53 agencies that did not respond in the required 20 days, the archive was able by calling service centers or public liaisons to confirm its requests had been received and sometimes learn where they were in processing. Most FOIA officers archive staffers reached "were courteous and helpful."
But not at the CIA and Transportation Department. Multiple calls to the service centers and public liaisons at those two agencies went unanswered. The CIA had no voicemail to take a message; voicemail messages left at the Transportation Department were not returned.
Poustay said the audit revealed "great strides agencies have made in improving customer service." She said her office emphasizes to all agencies the value of direct dialogue between requesters and FOIA officers. "We have seen firsthand how helpful that is to the process."
FOIA amendments enacted last year, after the Bush administration tried to delay them to give its efforts more time, require agencies to establish telephone or Internet service allowing requesters to learn electronically the status and estimated completion date of their requests.