A Coalition of Journalists for Open Government study released in July revealed that federal government agencies made almost no improvements in 2007 when it came to responding to Freedom of Information Act requests, even though they were given a presidential order to improve services.
The report, “An Opportunity Lost,” not only criticizes government agencies’ actions or lack thereof; it also challenges the findings of the Justice Department’s own study of the agencies’ FOIA performances.
Study coordinator Pete Weitzel said the Justice Department’s study appeared as though it was looking for evidence that suggested agencies were making progress instead of examining whether requesters were benefiting from any of the changes. Rather than just focusing on whether a change occurred within an agency, Weitzel focused the study on the impact these changes have on FOIA requesters.
Weitzel said the agencies had a “terrible performance” in 2006 that created a tremendous backlog of requests. The Justice Department’s study revealed that government agencies’ performances improved in 2007, but Weitzel disagrees.
He said that fewer requests were made in 2007.
But instead of tackling the backlog and fixing problems from the past, some agencies cut personnel and spent less money on FOIA.
He said his study found that agencies processed almost the same number of requests in 2007 as they did the year before.
“They had an opportunity to catch up,” he said. “They didn’t take advantage of it.”
The cutting of resources was not the only problem Weitzel found. He said that agencies were giving out less information and denying more appeals, and there was no indication the waiting time was changing significantly.
Weitzel did say that a couple of agencies showed some signs of improvement, including the Department of Homeland Security. He said the few success stories he found made him believe that with more resources and dedication focused on FOIA, there could be some dramatic changes in the years to come.
“Hopefully the next administration will take a good look at FOIA and access to information, and we’ll make a move to improve things,” Weitzel said.
The entire Coalition of Journalists for Open Government report can be seen at cjog.net.
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