Government transparency and improved federal records management practices have been two core initiatives in the Obama administration’s attempt to reform the ways of Washington. In an effort to track progress made thus far and highlight remaining obstacles, the Associated Press conducted an independent analysis of how government agencies were responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
In a review of 37 of the largest federal departments during the past three years, AP analysts discovered that government officials responded to more FOIA requests than ever in 2011. The final tally of more than 576,000 inquiries processed represented a 5 percent increase over 2010 data, as citizens, journalists and businesses come out in force to test the waters of a supposedly more accessible system.
The majority of agencies were able meet the demand, invoking legal exemption clauses at a reduced rate and release a wave of important emails and documents that provided direct insight into the decision making process of legislators and federal officials. AP analysts also noted that the average time to turn over records was reduced to approximately one month for “simple” requests and down to three months for more complex cases.
After all was said in done, according to the AP, 23 of the 37 agencies analyzed were able to either stall or reverse the growth of their FOIA backlogs.
“It is not surprising to see more FOIA requests sent in to an administration that has emphasized transparency,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz noted. “We’re making a strong effort to keep up with demand by devoting more resources to it.”
Despite these impressive figures, separate findings from the AP report suggest there is still plenty of work left ahead. Across all agencies, more than one-third of FOIA requests were rejected in full last year. That actually marked a slight improvement over 2010, but the reasons for this lack of disclosure were somewhat discouraging.
According to the AP report, it would seem as though a number of the administrative issues may be preventable with a stronger set of records management fundamentals. Aside from cases in which data had to be withheld for reasons of national security, there were several requests left unfulfilled because documents could not be located or parties simply refused to pay for the necessary copies.
With important issues of public policy at stake, administrative processes should not be obstacles, but rather conduits for free-flowing information. As agencies continue their diligent work toward revitalizing operations and meeting that goal, they should not be afraid to ask for outside assistance.
For instance, the AP report found that the Department of Homeland Security alone received more than 175,000 new FOIA requests last year. Faced with a seemingly insurmountable task, it is more than understandable that the agency fell slightly behind. But with a backlog approaching 90,000 requests to start this year, according the AP, it is time to consider all options.
One potential solution to these troubles would be partnering with a neutral third party that comes with qualified government records management expertise. With the services of professionals at their disposal, government organizations can satisfy calls for transparency, while also upholding the virtues of records management.