A Scorecard of FOIA Compliance for Some Federal Agencies
A building block of American democracy is the idea that as citizens, we have a right to information about how our government works and what it does in our name. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires federal agencies to promptly respond to public requests for information unless disclosure of the requested information would harm a protected interest. Unfortunately, since its passage in 1966 and reform in 1974, federal agencies have failed to implement the law consistently, which can make it challenging for citizens to gain access to public information as the law guarantees.
This analysis evaluates the performance of the 15 federal agencies that received the greatest number of FOIA requests in fiscal year 2012. These agencies received over 90 percent of all information requests that year. We examined their performance in three key areas:
- Processing requests for information (the rate of disclosure, the fullness of information provided, and timeliness of the response);
- Establishing rules for information access (effectiveness of agency policy on withholding information and communicating with requesters); and
- Creating user-friendly websites (facilitating the flow of information to citizens, online services, and up-to-date reading rooms).
The results are sobering. None of the 15 agencies earned exemplary scores (an overall A grade), and only eight earned “passing grades” (60 or more out of a possible 100 points). The low scores are not due to impossibly high expectations. In each of three performance areas, at least one agency earned an A, showing that excellence is possible. But the fact that no agency was able to demonstrate excellence across all three areas illustrates the difficulty agencies seem to be having in consistently combining all the elements of an effective disclosure policy.
In developing overall scores, an agency’s performance in actually getting information to the public is weighted most heavily. Half the overall score is based on an index of the agency’s ability to process information requests in a timely fashion. In addition, the rules an agency develops to shape its disclosure practices and the user-friendliness of the agency’s website determine the ease of citizen access to information; each of these areas accounts for a quarter of the overall grade an agency received.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) was the top performer, with a B grade. SSA performed exceptionally well at processing FOIA requests but earned relatively low scores for its rules and website. The Department of Justice (DOJ) scored second, based on strong grades for its rules and website, rather than the actual release of information. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came in third, also earning solid marks for its rules and websites, but a middling grade for processing requests. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) was fourth, with middling grades in each area. Only DOJ, EPA, and USDA received passing marks in all three areas examined.
The Departments of the Treasury, Transportation, and Health and Human Services, and the Securities and Exchange Commission received D or D- grades, failing at least one of the index elements.
Seven agencies received an overall failing grade: the Departments of Labor, Veterans Affairs, Defense, Homeland Security, and State, as well as the National Archives and Records Administration and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The State Department earned the lowest overall score of any agency, with a particularly low score for its request processing: a mere 17 percent.
A scorecard of FOIA compliance for various arms of the federal government. Among those who received an “F” are the National Archives, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State. Unsurprising.