Need information from a government agency? If that agency is the Social Security Administration, you just might be in luck. Make a request of the State Department, however, and you may be waiting a long time.
At least, that is what a report recently released by the Center for Effective Government says. According to the Center, federal agencies have a lot of room for improvement when it comes to complying with the Freedom of Information Act, or “FOIA.”
Originally passed by Congress in 1966, FOIA was intended to keep the public informed by guaranteeing citizens the right to obtain information from the federal government. These rights are enforceable in court, except where the disclosure of records would harm a protected interest as provided by exemptions built into the law.
The Center’s recent report provides its results in the form of a scorecard that measures the ease of accessing information from the fifteen agencies receiving the greatest number of FOIA requests throughout the year. According to the Center, poor performance on its scorecard means it is more difficult for citizens to access agency information than it should be.
The Center’s scorecard tracked three broad sets of characteristics. First, it weighted most heavily each agency’s track record in processing requests for information, such as the rate and timeliness of disclosure as well as the completeness of the information provided. Second, the scorecard incorporated an index of each agency’s policies about information access, including policies about communicating with requestors and withholding information when a protected interest might be harmed. Finally, the scorecard included measures of how user-friendly each agency’s website is with respect to online FOIA services, the flow of information to citizens, and online reading room content.
Scores were calculated by weighing an agency’s performance in several categories against FOIA standards, with bonus points for improvements over the previous year. Points earned in each category were then divided by the total number of possible points available in order to get a percentage. The percentage was then converted into a letter grade.
No agency received an “A” (93% or above) in all categories, and only eight of the fifteen agencies received overall “passing” grades (60% or above). In each of the three categories, at least one of the fifteen agencies scored by the Center received an “A” grade, indicating that top results are not unattainable.
Overall, the best performing agencies – those with “B” (80-89%) and “C” (70-79%) grades on the combined scorecard – were the Social Security Administration (83%), the United States Department of Justice (81%), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (78%), and the United States Department of Agriculture (77%). Notably, the Social Security Administration scored extremely well at information request processing, even though, according to the report, its information policies and website had room for improvement.
Receiving overall scores in the “D” range were the United States Department of Transportation (65%), the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (65%), the U.S. Department of the Treasury (64%), and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (61%). Each of these agencies failed at least one of the three evaluation categories.
The remaining agencies received “Fs” overall: the National Archives and Records Administration (59%), the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (58%); the United States Department of Labor (56%); the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (53%); the U.S. Department of Defense (51%); the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (51%); and, finally, the U.S. Department of State, which received a score of only 37% (including a 17% score in the information processing category).
The fact that no single agency received top marks across the board presumably reflects, to some degree, the difficulty in administering all the elements of what the Center would like to see in a government disclosure program.
Still, the Center is optimistic that agencies can draw from the best practices of others in improving their own information disclosure policies and practices. Best practices for agencies to improve information processing requests, for instance, include increasing training and personnel, improving technology, and disclosing information proactively.
According to the Center’s report, many agencies have room for improvement in their disclosure policies because only two of the agencies have even updated their rules since FOIA was last amended in 2007. The Center would like to see new updates include a “presumption of openness,” which means that if there is any doubt about whether to disclose information, then transparency wins, as well as “clear procedures for implementing the foreseeable harm standard,” which results in the denial of information requests when disclosure is either illegal or would harm a protected interest.
Many agencies scored well on the Center’s scorecard in terms of having user-friendly websites. But, the Center says that those that did not should work to make sure their websites include “robust and updated electronic reading rooms with good search features…full online requester services, and…complete contact information for their FOIA officers.”
The Center for Effective Government is a non-profit advocacy group, originally founded in 1983, that focuses on encouraging executive branch agencies of the federal government to become more transparent and receptive to the input of constituents. The Center’s report draws data from all information requests made in fiscal year 2012 and a survey of agency websites conducted in 2013.