New attitude towards FOIA, but who’s going to clear the backlog?

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President Obama sent a clear message to government officials in one of his first acts in office: From now on, we will comply with the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act and try to provide people the information they request. But the move, which is reminiscent of previous administrations, does not explain how federal agencies are supposed to actually catch up on what are some pretty imposing backlogs.

FOIA requires agencies to grant or deny requests within 20 days. Under the Electronic FOI Improvements Act of 1996, agencies can delay responses when “extraordinary circumstances” exist, but the act specifies that routine backlogs don’t count as extraordinary (routine and extraordinary actually being opposites).

Meanwhile, a 2008 study by the Committee of Journalists for an Open Government looked at 25 federal agencies and found that in fiscal year 2007, there was a backlog of requests awaiting response equal to 33 percent of the number processed annually. And between 2006 and 2007, the report said, FOIA spending fell by $7 million and agencies processed requests with 209 fewer people.

Agencies are required to report FOIA stats for each fiscal year, and they’re now starting to trickle in for 2008. So far only Homeland Security’s and Justice’s have shown up on the DOJ webpage that serves as a clearinghouse for these reports. And the numbers aren’t pretty. DHS had 83,742 requests remaining to fill at the end of fiscal year 2008 (the agency processed 109,028 requests); DOJ had 6,302 requests pending (the agency received 61,272 during the fiscal year). PaperTrail will keep an eye on these reports as they come in.

Meanwhile, maybe Obama’s charge will translate into more money and staff for FOIA requests. Feel free to check it out yourself — visit the Center’s “Research Tools” section and learn how to submit your own FOIA request.

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