Government [redacted] transparency: 7 of 15 federal agencies graded 'F' in FOIA

Ah, it’s Sunshine Week and time to disinfect the murky shadows, where government and fed agencies hide their secrets, with something other than leaks.

Center for Effective Government Scorecard 2014 for FOIA overall performance

For Scorecard 2014 [pdf], a government transparency report card, the Center for Effective Government graded 15 federal agencies that received over 90% of all Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in fiscal year 2012. Answered FOIA requests are supposed to keep America’s democratic government answerable to Americans. Yet the report card shows failing grades for seven of 15 federal agencies. The government complains about leaks, but there might be less of those if agencies did a better job answering citizen’s FOIA requests.

Out of the 704,394 FOIA requests last year, the Associated Press said that on 196,034 occasions, the government claimed it “couldn’t find records,” the request was “unreasonable or improper,” or the records released cost so much that a “person refused to pay for the copies.”

Sunshine Week 2014 cartoon by Don Landgren, Worcester Telegram & Gazette

Sunshine Week 2014 cartoon by Don Landgren, Worcester Telegram & Gazette

Although it’s not rocket science to answer FOIA requests, clearly the government needs to review the “best practices guide” put together by the Center for Effective Government. It’s like a FOIA guide “for dummies;” it’s sad anyone has to come up with these eight suggestions, which are mostly common sense, like be proactive and post info online to avoid getting FOIA requests; don’t roast toasty or otherwise destroy agency records; use the Internet!

Use the Internet to process requests more efficiently: Agencies should allow requesters to submit requests and appeals online, provide online tracking, and use e-mail as a default way of communicating. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allows people to submit requests by e-mail or through the agency website, which is faster than by regular mail. Agencies should use existing technology to provide more efficient service to requesters.

The Justice Department launched FOIA.gov for Sunshine Week 2012, the year the DOJ was named “worst” for transparency by the NSA. No, not that NSA, but the National Security Archive. What’s different to report in 2014? Not much, according to the National Security Archive FOIA Audit:

Nearly half (50 out of 101) of all federal agencies have still not updated their Freedom of Information Act regulations to comply with Congress's 2007 FOIA amendments, and even more agencies (55 of 101) have FOIA regulations that predate and ignore President Obama's and Attorney General Holder's 2009 guidance for a "presumption of disclosure."

While being advised to use technology and the Internet as tools to help answer FOIA requests might seem so obvious that it doesn't need to be written down, it clearly is not since half of the federal agencies can’t be bothered to update FOIA regulations. The Office of Science and Technology Policy, for example, has not updated FOIA regulations since 1983. Wow, great tech policy procedure there!

The National Security Archive has the full list of when agencies last updated FOIA regulations; it includes facts like:  

The Federal Trade Commission is still dwelling in 1975, at least regarding when it last updated. The DOD’s FOIA regulations haven’t been updated since 2002, but the agency “did revise its Directive covering FOIA regulations” in 2011. Way to hide it! 2003 was the last time the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice last updated FOIA regulations. The CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence last updated in 2007, as did the Office of Government Ethics…but the latter we might tend to expect as it’s sometimes hard to remember the government has ethics.

Sunshine Week 2014 cartoon by Chip Bok, Creators Syndicate

2014 Sunshine Week cartoon by Chip Bok, Creators Syndicate 

Sunshine Week 2014 cartoon by Matt Wuerker, Politico

Sunshine Week 2014, cartoon by Matt Wuerker, Politico

The Associated Press found that last year was the most-censored or fully-denied year for FOIA requests yet….so much for President Obama’s promise for better government transparency. But hey, happy Sunshine Week!

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