Good News And Bad News For FOIA Requests

Have you ever asked someone, do you want the good news or the bad news first? Many people ask for the bad news first, to get it out of the way. On that note, today and tomorrow on the podcast DorobekINSIDER, we’ll be discussing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with Sean Moulton, Director of Open Government Policy at the Center for Effective Government. We’ll give you the bad news regarding FOIA requests today, and the upshot tomorrow.

The Center for Effective Government recently released the report “Making the Grade: Access to Information Scorecard 2015”, which assesses fifteen government agencies on their responsiveness to FOIA requests and their general adherence to FOIA law.

It’s been almost fifty years since Congress first established the FOIA in 1967, and there has been a great deal of progress towards transparency and accountability since the beginning, but according to Moulton, agencies still struggle greatly in following that law. “Even with all that work and all that time, we still are seeing very poor performance across most of the major agencies,” said Moulton.

The Center for Effective Government conducts this research report every year, and this year, two agencies received failing grades, and eight agencies received the very low passing grade of D. The two lowest scorers, those who failed, were the Department of State and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Why is following the word of the law such a struggle for government agencies? It seems simple – get a FOIA request and give the requesting party the information they want. However, in reality, it’s far more complicated than that.

First of all, not all government employees fully believe in the FOIA – it’s hard for everyone to see how fulfilling these requests helps further their missions of providing efficient transportation, or protecting the environment, for instance. It’s often seen as a separate, unrelated ‘to-do’.

However, according to Moulton, that’s not the case; in fact, he explained, “a lot of these requests are from researches, journalists, and companies who are interested in that mission, and by getting this information out there, they are helping people accomplish the mission in various ways… people don’t request this information sheerly for curiosity. People are requesting this information to use it, and to be partners with those agencies in trying to achieve better results.”

Many agencies struggle to amass the personnel and resources to respond to FOIA requests. “All agencies are tightening their belts,” said Moulton. “We’ve had that for a number of years now. And so it does create a challenge as to how to do this.” Especially in a resources-strained environment, it’s critical to make government employees understand the connection between FOIA responsiveness and mission-related achievement.

Surprisingly, the movement towards open data has not had very much impact upon FOIA requests. “This administration has done a good job in proactive disclosure around data and databases, and that’s been great… But we haven’t seen the drop in FOIA requests that people expected,” said Moulton.

So, there’s still a great deal to be done to improve the FOIA request process. Tomorrow, we’ll cover who’s been doing it well and how other agencies can hope to improve as well.

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