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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Justice Dept annual FOIA summary report miscalculates FOIA release rate

Unredacted, the National Security Archive’s blog, analyzed the latest annual agency FOIA report from the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP), and found that the report over calculated and misrepresented the government’s release rate of FOIA requests. The FY2019 summary report said that agencies had achieved a government-wide release rate of 94.4% (up from 93.8% last year), but the Natl Security Archive’s analysis and math — when taking into account things like counting nearly entirely redacted documents as successful partial releases, and excluding more than 270,700 requests denied (often improperly) over fees, referrals, “no records” responses, and requests “improper for other reasons” — showed that a more accurate release rate calculated by the Archive and others “hovers between 50 and 60 percent.”

That’s not good. OIP and agencies across the federal government MUST do better, must conduct more efficient searches, must find more ways to proactively post documents online etc. The 2018-2020 FOIA Advisory Committee to the National Archives (of which I’m a member) has some very good recommendations in their draft report for making FOIA better. This is the peoples’ information. While there are legitimate reasons for limiting access to *some* information (see the 9 FOIA exemptions), agencies have to stop using bureaucratic impediments to block, deter, and obfuscate the public’s right to know what their government is doing in their name.

The FY2019 summary report argues that agencies have achieved a government-wide release rate of 94.4% (up from 93.8% last year). OIP calculates that overly-generous figure by counting nearly entirely redacted documents as successful partial releases (see above for an example), and excluding more than 270,700 requests denied (often improperly) over fees, referrals, “no records” responses, and requests “improper for other reasons.” A more accurate release rate calculated by the Archive and others hovers between 50 and 60 percent.

Other highlights from the report include:

  • The government received 858,952 FOIA requests in FY 2019, down slightly from FY2018’s all-time high of 863,729 requests.
  • Exemption 7(c) and 7(e) account for more than 50% of all exemptions applied to denied records or portions of records.
  • Backlogged requests have decreased from 130,718 in FY2018 to 120,436 in FY2019.
    • As a reminder, in 2008 President Obama instructed every agency to reduce its FOIA backlog by ten percent every year. As my dear former colleague Nate Jones notes in his article, FOIA: A Colossus Under Assault, only one agency did this – the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Four agencies account for 65% of all referrals (and associated delays): DOD, DOJ, DHS, and CIA.
  • The appeals backlog continues to grow – up to 5,087.
    • Don’t let this deter you from appealing, though, as agencies release improperly withheld information on appeal at least a third of the time.
  • Agencies reported collecting $2,547,638 in FOIA fees – totaling less than .5% of total FOIA costs. These fees are not recouped by the agency, but are instead deposited in the Treasury Department’s general fund, making it all the more frustrating to see agency’s use “fee bullying” techniques to intimidate requesters into dropping or unnecessarily narrowing their requests.
  • Agencies spent nearly $38,842,948 in FOIA litigation. Put another way, agencies lost 15x as much money fighting bad FOIA decisions in court as they collected in FOIA fees.

via OIP Report Misleadingly Touts a Government-Wide FOIA Release Rate of 94.4%, Continued Surveillance of Black Lives Matter, and More: FRINFORMSUM 6/4/2020 | UNREDACTED.

FOIA Advisory Committee 2018-2020 term recommendations coming into focus

The most recent quarterly meeting of NARA’s FOIA Advisory Committee (of which I’m a member) occurred last friday (12/6/19). You can watch the entire meeting as it was live-streamed on NARA’s YouTube channel (below).

I consider myself fortunate to be able to work with this committee — 1/2 of its members are FOIA officers at federal agencies, and 1/2 are from various parts of the requester community: academics, lawyers, FOIA activists and myself the lone librarian. The committee works to identify challenges that exist with the FOIA and then issues official recommendations to improve FOIA at the end of each term. For the 2018-2020 term, the committee has broken out into three subcommittees — Records Management (of which I’m a member), Time/Volume, and Vision — and we’ve been working diligently on recommendations for our final report. You can see in the links below what each of the subcommittees has chosen to focus in on to make FOIA better.

The committee is currently working on quite a few sticky issues, not least of which are “release to one release to all” — which was developed by the Obama administration in 2016 but is still “under consideration” by the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the Department of Justice — as well as the 2 issues closest to my librarian heart, a central FOIA repository and FOIA documents in both human-readable and machine-actionable formats (draft recommendations 8 and 9 of the records management subcommittee).

I’d like to give a shout-out to tireless public open government advocate Alex Howard (formerly from Sunlight Foundation) who has shown up at each of our meetings and has given substantive input, comments and critiques during the public comment portion of each meeting and via live-blog and twitter during each meeting. We should have more advocates like Alex who not only keeps the government’s feet to the open-government fire but also gives positive, actionable policy and technical advice to achieve real advances in FOIA and government transparency generally.



In December 2016, President Obama also ordered the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to make FOIA a “cross agency priority” goal. Unfortunately, the Trump administration removed the Cross Agency Priority Goal for FOIA on Performance.gov without notice.

An administration that’s serious about improving public access to our records and being good stewards of taxpayer dollars and public information would restore said goal, perhaps as a commitment in some sort of comprehensive “national action plan on open government.”

While the FOIA Advisory Committee is full of people working in good faith to improve how sunshine in government works for the public, this administration has reversed or neglected many of the open government policies or programs of the past decade and weaponized transparency through selective disclosures.

As has been the case for years, it falls to Congress to perform oversight of the FOIA and ensure that public access to public information continues to improve through implementation of the FOIA reforms President Obama signed into law in December 2016 and the open government bill President Trump signed into law in January 2019.

via US FOIA Advisory Committee considers recommendations to part the rising curtains of secrecy | E Pluribus Unum.

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