FOIA Advisor

FOIA Commentary: DOJ releases FY 2018 FOIA metrics

Commentary (2019)Allan BlutsteinComment

On June 6, 2019, the Department of Justice released a summary of the annual FOIA reports prepared by federal agencies for the fiscal year 2018. The staff of FOIA Advisor — Allan Blutstein, Ryan Mulvey, and Kevin Schmidt — reacts to DOJ’s report.

AB: My first thought was “it’s about time,” because fiscal year 2018 ended more than eight months ago. As for the data, I was not surprised by the increase in the number of incoming FOIA requests, though the total number (863,729) fell short of the one million figure predicted by OIP’s director. Nor was I surprised by the 17 percent increase in backlogged requests in light of the month-long government shutdown, which DOJ’s report does not even mention.

KS: The elephant in the room, as always, is the government-wide release rate that irks the FOIA community every year. The report notes an overall release rate of 93.8%, but as National Security Archive wrote on this yesterday, “[w]hat the report does not say is that OIP calculates that overly-generous figure by counting nearly entirely redacted documents as successful partial releases.” NSA estimates the release rate is closer to “between 50 and 60 percent.” It’s obvious to everyone involved that there are issues to be addressed in FOIA processing (resources, staffing, technology, etc.), so it helps nobody when these reports provide a distorted view of the what’s actually happening.

RM: In my mind, it would be helpful for the DOJ summary to breakdown statistics and distinguish between “true” FOIA requests and first-party requests governed by the Privacy Act. Considering the number of first-party requests handled by agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, bracketing the Privacy Act may provide a more accurate picture of where the government is with administration of the FOIA. I also would have like more information about how agencies are complying with their proactive disclosure obligations. For example, how often are agencies posting frequently requested/”rule of 3” records?