DHS accounts for nearly all backlog reductions in 2009. That’s right, DHS

FOIA followers have read that the aggregate government-wide FOIA backlog is down from about 157,000 to about 102,000 requests, a reduction of about 35 percent. (We’ll use round numbers for ease of reading.) This statistic shows broad improvements.

This must be a general trend of agencies getting the message and doing a better job, right? Wrong.

The Department of Homeland Security accounts for all of the backlog reductions.

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DHS Says Rules Limiting Access Don’t Apply to Public

While pressure is to punish the press for publishing stories that rely on unauthorized disclosures of classified information is certainly far from the fever pitch of 2006 and 2007, Congress is still concerned about the publication of information it wants to keep from the public.   Secrecy News reports (“DHS Says It Cannot Stop Private Posting of Sensitive Info“) that the Department of Homeland Security told lawmakers that the Department has no authority to act when the public publishes information the department deems sensitive.

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Talking Transparency on C-SPAN

Recently I had the great opportunity to talk transparency on C-SPAN.  I appreciate Kevin Goldberg for his busy schedule and thinking of SGI to fill in.  Originally conceived as a segment in mid-March to talk about Sunshine Week, the wildly successful effort led by the American Society of News Editors to call public attention to transparency in government, our half-hour discussion focused on the Obama administration’s efforts to promote transparency from within the executive branch.  This month federal agencies released open government plans, and while many agencies were spurred to start talking transparency seriously, others were moving enthusiastically to push transparency.

The callers reminded me that transparency means different things to different people.  Some, like the caller who wanted to know more about a death near the U.S. border, were frustrated that many agencies couldn’t provide straight answers and needed to know where to look.  Others cared about health care reform and wanted to see more of the process leading to Congress enacting reform legislation.  So we started by trying to define transparency.

A FOIA Dashboard: Getting it right

We’re excited to see that the Justice Department will be creating a FOIA Dashboard as its flagship program to let the public and agencies see how agencies are faring in fulfulling FOIA requests, and to help agencies compare their performance with other agencies to see where they can improve.  We’ll be writing more about what should go into this dashboard and what it should allow agencies and the public to do, but here’s a first take. Read more of this post

Today’s Open Government Plans & FOIA

Today many federal agencies released Open Government Plans as part of the White House’s efforts to promote greater transparency, collaboration and participation. While we have yet to go through many of these plans, they are a second or third step toward engraving transparency into the cornerstones of federal agencies.  We hope these flagship initiatives, plans and reports result ultimately in a more open government for years and administrations to come.

The frustrations with FOIA — long delays due to huge backlogs, lack of communication between agencies and requesters, and having little recourse when disputes arise — are longstanding.  Reporters and other requesters are likely to see these problems persist for a very long time, however some agencies are making significant changes from the high-level management attention to FOIA.  And that’s a good thing.

SGI will be focusing on the aspects of the plans dealing with the Freedom of Information Act;  FOIA is the best tool for getting agencies to disclose inconvenient or embarrassing information, and its strength and effectiveness in getting timely information to the public is vital to any open government efforts.

We’ll also be looking into the recently released Chief FOIA Officer reports to see how serious and promising agencies are in strengthening how FOIA works.

Some agencies that filed Open Government Plans may appear to step gingerly in the waters of open government, but even promises should not be taken lightly.  The Department of Health and Human Services deserves a pat on the back for including an honest appraisal of their FOIA operations.  For example, here’s an excerpt from section 3.7 of the HHS plan (dealing with FOIA operations):

  1. Annual Reporting is Manual. Although the annual report requires the collection of several numbers that might serve as good performance indicators, this is undermined by inconsistencies in the definitions for the terms in the report.  A complex request in one FOIA office might require a significantly different amount of work than a complex request in another.  The annual report shows nothing of whether long delays are due to fundamentally difficult redaction questions, due to slow response time of the program holding the records, or due to a backlog in disclosure analysis.  Since the Department’s annual report is compiled manually, more frequent collection of metrics is not feasible without systematic changes.

Technology

  1. Technology is Underutilized. The challenges encountered in compiling the annual report underlie the differences in technology utilization across the HHS FOIA offices.  Most of the HHS FOIA offices do not offer online submission of requests. There are little or no common standards connecting any of the systems supporting HHS’s FOIA offices.

In the weeds, yes.  But it’s important to know where the problems are to fix them.  And for the public to see these baseline assessments to track the agencies’ progress (or lack thereof) in making FOIA work better.

Heading to talk with senior agency people about FOIA

As I head off to talk with senior agency officials about their FOIA programs as part of a day-long Justice Department training, I’m thinking about all the good ideas that FOIA requesters and researchers sent me. Top of the list for improving FOIA? Communication.

Can an agency get credit if it reduces backlogs?

This may sound like asking whether a tree falling in a forest with no one around makes any noise at all, but bear with me here:  If an agency improves their backlog of FOIA requests — actually makes a dent in it — would anyone know?

Maybe not.

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