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Making the Grade: Access to Information Scorecard 2015

March 9, 2015

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. But implementation of the law since its passage in 1966 has been uneven and inconsistent across federal agencies.This is the second year we have conducted a very detailed comparative analysis of the performance of the 15 federal agencies that consistently receive the most FOIA requests. Combined, these 15 agencies received over 90 percent of all information requests for each of the last two years. We examined their performance in three key areas:The establishment of clear agency rules guiding the release of information and communication with those requesting information;The quality and "user-friendliness" of an agency's FOIA website; andThe timely, complete processing of requests for information.The number of requests each agency receives, the complexity of the requests, and the number of staff assigned within an agency to process them varies widely and can impact performance.The results of our analysis: eight out of 15 agencies improved their overall scores this year, and in each of the three performance areas, more agencies received the highest grades (A). But only two agencies improved their FOIA policy guidelines, and processing scores actually declined in eight agencies. Ten of the agencies failed to achieve a satisfactory overall grade.Fulfilling the promise of full, timely public access to meaningful government information is an ongoing, complex process that requires leadership and commitment. The Obama administration, Congress, and agency leaders need to ensure that agencies have the staff and resources they need to process requests in a timely manner.

Making the Grade: Access to Information Scorecard 2014

March 10, 2014

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); andCreating 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 inconsistently combining all the elements of an effective disclosure policy.

Best Practices for Agency Freedom of Information Act Regulations

December 9, 2013

Of the 100 agencies in the federal government subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), dozens of agencies have not yet updated their FOIA regulations to reflect requirements in the OPEN Government Act of 2007. The OPEN Government Act required federal agencies to better assist people who make requests for public information under FOIA – for instance, by providing individualized tracking numbers in order to check the status of a request. Despite additional direction from President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to improve FOIA processing, six years later, most agency regulations include few of the best practices described below.FOIA regulations should be easy for both requesters and agency staff to understand and should promote transparency by highlighting existing practices in federal agencies. The Obama administration has committed to developing common FOIA regulations and practices applicable to all agencies. This report is designed to be a practical guide for the administration and agency staff engaged in improving FOIA regulations and practices.

Freedom of Information Act Performance, 2012: Agencies Are Processing More Requests but Redacting More Often

March 13, 2013

A building block of American democracy is the idea that citizens have a right to information about how their government works and what it does in their name. However, citizen access to public information was only established by law in 1966 with the passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The law has since been strengthened and improved over the years, and FOIA currently requires federal agencies to formally respond to requests for information within 20 working days or potentially face a lawsuit. While there are exemptions that agencies can use to avoid the disclosure of sensitive information or information that violates privacy rights, agencies processed over half a million FOIA requests in 2012. In about 41 percent of these cases, the information requested was released "in full" with no parts "redacted" -- i.e., clean, complete documents with no blacked-out parts were provided to the person who requested the information. How does this compare to past years and past administrations? How well has President Obama met his goal of being the most transparent administration in history with regard to access to public information? This report examines the processing of FOIA requests from 25 major federal agencies in 2012 and reviews the processing of FOIA requests by agencies since 1998.

Delivering on Open Government: The Obama Administration's Unfinished Legacy

March 10, 2013

This report examines progress made during President Obama's first term toward open government goals outlined in a comprehensive set of recommendations that the open government community issued in November 2008, titled Moving Toward a 21st Century Right-to-Know Agenda. We examine activity in the three main areas of the 2008 report: creating an environment within government that is supportive of transparency, improving public use of government information, and reducing the secrecy related to national security issues.

Upholding the Public's Trust: Key Features for Effective State Accountability Websites

March 1, 2012

Transparency is crucial in a democracy – and in a 21st century democracy, transparency means public access to information online. This report considers four key areas of transparency in the U.S. state and federal governments: campaign finance, lobbying, procurement, and public officials' assets. The report describes the key features needed for effective online disclosure in these areas and highlights leading practices in the states.Some information about each of the four topic areas is currently disclosed online by many states, as well as the federal government, illustrating progress on making public official integrity information readily available to the American people. However, there is wide variation within each area in the method and manner of online disclosure.The report explains that thoughtful, citizen-centric disclosure websites share five common elements. The sites are easy to navigate; have the basic information that most users need; provide features that help users explore the data; offer more detailed information for advanced users; and allow users to download the data.The report finds that a number of states are doing well. Colorado's campaign finance website has a well designed interface, and its search features make it very easy for the average citizen to find information. Massachusetts' lobby disclosure website provides the information needed to paint a clear picture by linking a lobbyist's activities to particular legislation and recording his or her position on that legislation. However, no state has a uniformly user-friendly site.The parallel federal accountability websites explored in the report are doing a little better than state websites overall, except in the area of financial and asset disclosure by public officials; in that area, the federal government lags behind.

Assessing Progress Toward a 21st Century Right to Know

March 1, 2011

On Nov. 12, 2008, the right-to-know community published a set of detailed transparency recommendations for President-elect Barack Obama and Congress. Those recommendations, titled Moving Toward a 21st Century Right-to-Know Agenda, were developed over a two-year period with input from more than 100 groups and individuals. The seventy recommendations urged the new president and the incoming Congress to act quickly on a number of key government openness issues while also encouraging a more systematic, longer-term approach to a variety of other transparency problems that plague the federal government. The recommendations were endorsed by more than 300 organizations and individuals from across the political spectrum. A senior White House official privately called the recommendations a "blueprint for the Obama administration."The report organized the majority of the recommendations into three chapters.The National Security and Secrecy chapter provided specific recommendations to address the increase in government secrecy that has occurred due to professed national and homeland security concerns.The Usability of Government Information chapter focused on recommendations for how interactive technologies can make information more easily accessible and usable, including protecting the integrity of information and using the best formats and tools.The Creating a Government Environment for Transparency chapter addressed recommendations for creating incentives for openness and shifting government policies and mechanisms to encourage transparency.An additional chapter laid out recommendations for the first 100 days of the administration; the implementation of those recommendations was assessed in an earlier OMB Watch report.This report seeks to assess progress on each recommendation near the midpoint of the president's term as part of Sunshine Week 2011. The many factors at play in each recommendation – vision, leadership, policy, implementation, etc. – make it difficult, if not impossible, to assign simple grades. Instead, we will explain the activities of the administration and Congress on the issues addressed in the recommendations and offer some insights on those actions.It should be noted that no administration could be expected to complete all of the recommendations contained in the 2008 report in just two years' time. There is a very real limit to resources and staff that can be brought to bear on the issue of government openness while still addressing the many other demands on government. Several of the recommendations were explicitly designed as long-term challenges that will take years of work to complete, and of course, the work of implementation is never done.