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.

The agency slashed its backlog by over 56,000 requests. Two agencies within DHS were responsible for these gains: the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (completing 51,000 requests) and Customs and Border Protection (about 5,000 requests). What did they do right, and could other agencies learn from this success? We need to read more and talk with those in these agencies to find out. Stay tuned.

As for the other 90 or so agencies, some cut into their backlogs and others fell further behind. Aside from DHS, the 90-plus agencies basically all washed each other out.

What is clear is that few agencies will slash backlogs by 10 percent unless they devote some serious resources to it. Recall the Open Government Directive requires agencies with “significant backlogs” to reduce them by 10 percent in the next year. Of the eleven agencies with the largest reductions (reductions of 100 requests and more), seven spent more. DHS invested an additional $17 million, and slashed its backlog from about 84,000 to 27,000 requests. On the small side, Legal Services Corporation bumped its FOIA budget from $10,000 to $44,000 got its backlog from 117 down to 7 requests. The CIA spent about the same and cut into a quarter of its backlog. Curiously, SEC, VA, and SSA all cut backlog and budget. We’d be curious to hear more about how those agencies appear to have done more with less.

Spending more doesn’t guarantee success, however.
Of the top eleven backsliders (agencies which saw backlogs increase by 50 requests or more), seven reported they spent more but didn’t get better numbers for it.

One huge caveat: it’s impossible to know how agencies calculate their costs for FOIA processing, and the Justice Department’s guideline only suggests that agencies refer to their annual budgets for help. Some may estimate costs based on a fixed rate for each request, so these cost figures may be wildly off the mark.

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About sunshineingov
Coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative

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