GAO: Agencies Making FOIA Requests Easier, But Challenges Remain

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The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report today that says Federal agencies are largely following guidelines to make Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests easier to access by making many of the frequently requested documents available online.

15 out of 18 agencies evaluated by GAO are fully compliant with requirements to make certain documents available online, and the remaining three appear to be a single step away from completion.

FOIA requires agencies to provide online access to government information and requires them to make four categories of information available electronically: agency final opinions and orders, statements of policy, administrative staff manuals and staff instructions that affect the public, and frequently requested records.

All 18 agencies are posting online records, GAO said, but three agencies have one category each that needs to be addressed.

The Department of Interior said it “does not have the time to post all such records that have been requested,” according to GAO, who recommended that Interior post its frequently requested records. The same recommendation was made to the National Transportation Safety Board, which said it does not post the information on a consistent basis.

GAO also told the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to post agency final opinions online. The agency said it issues them but has yet to make them available online.

Outside of those three agencies, GAO found that online access to publicly requested records is increasing.

The report called to attention the Department of Justice’s online FOIA request portal–at FOIA.gov–which launched in March of this year. Amendments to the FOIA law in 2016 required DoJ to work with the Office of Management and Budget to create the portal, intended to allow the public to submit a request to any agency from a single website.

While not all agencies are fully connected and automated, DoJ says it is meeting those mandates, “including the ability to make a request to any agency and the technical framework for interoperability,” according to GAO.

And, responding to a 2009 FOIA memorandum from the President, all of the 18 agencies evaluated “had established telephone or Internet services to assist requesters in tracking the status of requests; and they used modern technology (e.g., mobile applications) to inform citizens about FOIA,” GAO said.

But FOIA requests that do not involve the frequently requested or readily available documents continue to endure lengthy processing times, and agencies still have large request backlogs. In the last 9 fiscal years, Federal agencies subject to FOIA have received about 6 million requests. Agencies still may not be adequately equipped to handle the more complicated ones, GAO noted.

“The four agencies with the largest backlogs attributed challenges in reducing their backlogs to factors such as increases in the number and complexity of FOIA requests,” GAO said. “However, these agencies lacked plans that described how they intend to implement best practices to reduce backlogs. Until agencies develop such plans, they will likely continue to struggle to reduce backlogs to a manageable level.”

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