Despite new FOIA rules, old staff cuts may delay requests

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Since President Obama reversed former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s denial-prone directive on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests this year, open government advocates have had plenty to cheer about. But one legacy of the Bush administration may take more time to undo: massive cuts in many executive departments among staff responsible for handling FOIA requests.

The cuts have been particularly hard on the Justice Department, which was roiled by the U.S. attorney firing scandal two years ago. While in 2000, the Justice Department boasted 1,069 full-time FOIA staffers; by 2008, that figure had dropped to 389 — a decrease of almost two-thirds.

Over the past eight years, FOIA staff members in a handful of other departments were similarly scrubbed. For example: Since 2000, the Agriculture Department’s FOIA staffing levels have dropped 56 percent, down to 234 full-time employees.

Meanwhile, the Labor Department’s full-time FOIA staffing levels fell by 36 percent, down to 146 personnel. Likewise, the Veterans’ Affairs Department took a similar hit, with its FOIA staff declining from 492 to 327 personnel. At the same time, the Defense Department’s FOIA staffing dropped by 22 percent.

The trend hasn’t been uniform: in certain departments, such as Energy, as well as Treasury and Housing and Urban Development, FOIA staff levels have increased. Overall, however, staff levels fell by 14 percent across all agencies since 2000. Simultaneously, from 1998 to 2007, FOIA backlogs went from 13 percent of all requests to 33 percent of all requests — or one in three.

The passage of the 2007 Open Government Act and Obama’s January 21 FOIA memo not withstanding, Rick Blum of the Sunshine in Government Initiative says the battle to unclog FOIA requests will take years.

“I don’t think you could’ve asked for a president to do more to support openness and transparency than what Obama did on Day One,” says Blum. “But fixing FOIA will take time and resources — and can’t be solved by an election alone.”

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