Agencies trend toward withholding upon appeal reverses course in 2009

First, look at this chart compiled by friend of SGI and master FOIA data analyst Pete Weitzel.

It’s pretty.  But it also clearly shows agencies responded more positively to FOIA appeals (not requests) by releasing more information in full or in part.  And note also that fewer appeals were completed in 2002 to 2006  compared with the years before and after.  And in those years, there were fewer rejected FOIA appeals (with the partially and fully granted requests lower than in other years but not by much).

Two theories may explain this trend.  This may be a clear reflection of administration priorities.  Appeals are heard by upper-level agency counsel or more senior managers, and managers simply may not have responded to as many appeals.  It also may reflect a calculation by requesters that their apeals will not be successfully, so more requesters whose appeals would be rejected do not file them at all.

But interestingly, the trend started in 2008.  Did the increased attention to FOIA in Congress or the 2005 executive order spur agencies to look at their FOIA operations and plan improvements that are now paying off?  That may be.  This is the kind of suggestive data that spurs debates about how to improve FOIA without giving much insight into the cause of the shift.

Paring the annual report data with interviews with agency personnel and outside audits will give better insights into how to improve the system.  Otherwise, agencies will be putting out data that is of little value.

We’re hoping the Office of Government Information Services will be able to conduct studies and analyses that bring together performance trends with the problems requesters are facing (and bringing to OGIS for mediation) and the access to the FOIA officials to give clear insights into how FOIA really functions and what practical changes will improve agency readiness to handle FOIA inquiries.

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About sunshineingov
Coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative

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