The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that gives individuals the right to access information from the federal government. For this Act to work, citizens need to make a request to a specific agency, and the agency is responsible for fulfilling that request in a timely manner. It is a valuable tool for many of us to gain a better understanding of how our government is operating. However, some agencies are doing a better job at responding to requests than others. According Federal News Radio, only six agencies are responsible for more than 92% of the overall backlog. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) accounts for the greatest proportion with 103,480 backlogged FOIA requests.
I am currently a part of the DHS FOIA backlog process with two closed requests and one open request. My first (closed) request was submitted on January 8, 2015 for customer service statistics. I was supposed to have received a response by February 9, 2015. By early June 2015, after having not received an answer, I resubmitted the same request a second time. I soon learned that my initial request was cancelled. Moreover, it was not acted upon because it was sent to the wrong office.
My second (closed) request, referred to above, was submitted on June 11, 2015. I was supposed to have received an answer by July 10. In the meantime, I learned that the data I had requested was completed but that it had not yet been cleared by a FOIA official. I finally received the data on August 4, 2015, nearly a month after the second due date and more than six months after my first request.
I still have one open request with TSA for customer service compliment data. I submitted the request in early June. TSA stated that I would receive their response around July 23, 2015. I visited the TSA website today, and they changed their due date to September 2, 2015, even though the office fulfilling the response had already forwarded the data to the FOIA office.
I was going to write that many federal agencies are getting better at processing their FOIA requests, but that is no longer case for me. First, CBP did not meet their self-imposed deadline. Second, TSA not only did not meet their self-imposed deadline, but they changed it to show that they were no longer tardy.
Federal agencies can fix the problem by holding their managers accountable for meeting deadlines. Federal agencies could also do more by empowering their employees to take smart risks when it comes to releasing certain data. In a previous post, I described how TSA was already releasing and publishing customer complaint data, and so it did not seem like much of an added effort to release customer compliment data. But alas, the logic in that rationale does not seem to extend to some parts of DHS.
In short, the employee, if provided additional empowerment, could have released the data under certain circumstances. And so it is not just an issue of hiring more employees to meet the demand for FOIA information. It is also about managing the system better than it is currently being managed.