Freedom of Information Requests Taking Longer to Process

Federal agencies are taking longer to answer requests for records but provide fully responsive documents nearly nine out of 10 times, a congressional study says.

The number of Freedom of Information Act requests carried over from year to year has risen 43 percent since 2002, the Government Accountability Office reported to a House subcommittee Wednesday.

And the problem appears to be worsening. The increase in holdover requests was 24 percent from 2004 to 2005, compared with 11 percent from 2003 to 2004.

The GAO found the median — or midpoint — time for processing requests varied greatly among agencies: from less than 10 days to more than 100 days.

Part of the disparity may be explained by the requests' complexity, something not measured by the statistics, said Linda Koontz, the GAO's director of information management issues.

Koontz said agencies reported that responsive records were provided in full in 87 percent of the requests processed in 2005.

The House Government Reform subcommittee on government management held its second hearing on the ability of federal agencies to follow the Freedom of Information Act — which is 40 years old this month. The panel's initial session in May was the first time in five years the House held a hearing on how well the law was working.

The panel is also following progress of a presidential order of last December that required agencies to improve administration of the law, designate chief FOIA officers and establish in-house FOIA centers to receive requests.

"Federal departments and agencies are operating in the post 9/11 information age and face 21st Century security, information management and resource challenges," said Rep. Todd Russell Platts, R-Pa.

Tonda Rush, representing the National Newspaper Association and The Sunshine in Government Initiative, said the open records law "has become less reliable, less effective and a less timely vehicle for informing the public of government activities and newsworthy stories."

The association represents owners, publishers and editors of 2,500 community newspapers and the Sunshine Initiative is composed of nine news organizations including The Associated Press.

Rush said that only Congress can fix the most pressing improvements that the act needs: lack of alternatives to litigation to resolve disputes; the lack of incentives for agencies to speed responses, and excessive court costs caused by unwarranted denials.

She proposed that an independent mediator handle FOIA appeals, a concept that has worked in several states.

Platts asked two congressional witnesses — both sponsors of a stronger law — the most serious problem with administration of the act.

"The recent trend creating exceptions is a mistake," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "We should be doing just the opposite."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, cited the failure of agencies to meet deadlines and the lack of consequences for failure to respond.