FOIA openness remains elusive, says National Security Archive


Sixty-two of 99 federal agencies haven't implemented Obama administration policies for responding to Freedom of Information Act requests, says George Washington University's National Security Archive government watchdog.

In the Archive's latest annual FOIA assessment, it says FOIA compliance is extremely mixed among agencies despite the administration's openness goals.

A March 2009 FOIA memo (.pdf) signed by Attorney General Eric Holder told all agency heads to update FOIA policies to err on the side of openness in an attempt to provide records of interest to the public and avoid bureaucratic roadblocks.

However, more than three years later, most agencies continue to ignore those instructions, says the report. A primary reason is that Congress and the president lack a significant way to compel agencies to comply with FOIA, it adds.

It also says 56 agencies that have not updated FOIA guidance to reform their fee structures, institute request tracking numbers, publish specific data on their FOIA output and cooperate with the new FOIA mediators at the Office of Government Information Services as required by the 2007 OPEN Government Act.

Some agencies lag farther behind than others. The Federal Trade Commission has made no related policy updated since Feb. 21, 1975 while the U.S. Trade and Development Agency has no FOIA regulations, according to the report. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service can boast the most recent regulation update, having approved one on Nov. 6, 2012.

The lack of adherence and updates show a need for a transparency authority in the White House "whose sole responsibility is to track, cajole, and force federal agencies into complying with the law," writes Archive FOIA Coordinator Nate Jones.

Part of what such a FOIA czar could do would be to establish a best practices approach to FOIA. In its report, the Archives says such practices should include having agencies join the FOIAonline open-government portal for posting digital versions of documents (only six agencies are on board so far); ending the practice of using fees to discourage requests; reducing use of discretionary holdings; and proactively posting documents of likely interest to the public (something already required by the 1996 e-FOIA amendments).

For more:
- read the National Security Archive's report
- download the March 2009 FOIA memo (.pdf)

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