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FOIA.gov: A Little Bit of Sunshine
by
Posted On March 24, 2011


To mark Sunshine Week each year, newspapers around the U.S. carry articles and editorials making the case for our national Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and local equivalents. You can peruse hundreds of these news items at the Sunshine Week website, just below the fold. The national Sunshine Week was founded by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and is funded in large part by the Knight Foundation. The Justice Department fittingly chose the FOIA-focused Sunshine Week (March 13-19) to announce its new website, FOIA.gov. FOIA.gov has educational information about FOIA for citizens and data on the federal government’s performance in handling FOIA requests.

The site’s Learn section answers 25 questions frequently asked about FOIA, including the basics: how do I make a FOIA request; what can I ask for under the FOIA; and how long will it take before I receive a response. Brief videos supplement the text for some of these topics. The videos are in a captioned “talking head” format that, unfortunately, does not add much to the educational effort beyond the audio. Another educational feature is the glossary, which defines such FOIA technical terms as “exemption 3 statute” and “discretionary disclosure” for FOIA novices. The Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy (OIP), the central FOIA policy compliance coordinator for the agencies, had included more citizen education material on its website in the past. The OIP recently launched a new version of its website that concentrates more exclusively on their internal agency coordination mission, making FOIA.gov the outward-looking site.

The other two main sections of FOIA.gov are Data and Reports. These sections each provide access to the data in the annual FOIA reports submitted by departments and agencies to the OIP. Agencies have a long history of bad marks in FOIA compliance, often accused of being overly secretive, intentionally slow, incompetent, or all three. The annual reports are one attempt to get comparative workload and performance data and to shine some light on the bottlenecks. Copies of the reports are on the OIP website in PDF and XML for fiscal years 1998 to the present. For FOIA.gov, OIP has extracted the data in each report to make a searchable database covering all agencies. For the most part, only the data from 2008 forward is available to search. The submitted reports typically include descriptions of the data fields; online, you should turn to the glossary section. The agency-reported measures for FOIA operations are:

  • FOIA requests, with subsets for disposition and expedited processing counts
  • Exemptions, with a sub-count of those “exemption 3 statute” responses
  • Appeals, with data on dispositions, response time, and ten oldest pending appeals
  • Processing time, broken out for requests granted, simple requests, complex requests, expedited requests, pending requests, and ten oldest requests
  • Fee Waivers
  • Administration, including FOIA personnel and costs
  • Backlog
  • Consultations, including ten oldest
  • Comparisons, which can generate reports comparing data from up to four agencies (Data options are requests backlogged, administrative appeals, and appeals backlogged.)

For each of these FOIA measures, you can choose to report the data for a department as a whole, or for one or more of its component agencies—a distinct improvement over poring through a department’s entire report for just a few of its component agency’s numbers.

Reports generated in the Data section include a bar chart and table of the selected statistics; both appear on the bottom half of the screen. Look for the symbols above the bar chart. Mouse over the question mark to show a caption for your report. The CSV icon is, of course, for downloading the data in comma-separated variable format. The printer icon displays the bar chart and table on their own HTML page, minus the caption you saw earlier. While it is helpful to have these output options, they each feel a little rough (why isn’t that nice caption on the print page or the spreadsheet?), particularly if you’re looking for something you can quickly pop into one of your own documents.

The Reports section links to prepared reports that are formatted in the same way as the custom reports users generate in the Data section. Click on each report title to see the chart and table generated. Two of the lists of report title links are Most Recent and Most Popular. These display reports generated by you and other FOIA.gov users. Judging from the timeline of the most recent reports, FOIA.gov appears to be busy already. The Most Popular reports at this point are simple ones for either total requests or total backlogs for a single department. It will be interesting to see how heavier future use changes this.

The other two lists in the Reports section are maintained by OIP. The Featured Reports are selected by OIP “to highlight interesting FOIA statistics.” Currently they include Number of FOIA Requests Received by Agencies with Law Enforcement & Intelligence Missions and Exemptions Applied to Requests by Major Regulatory Agencies, which do sound intriguing. The second OIP list is called At-A-Glance, “a quick look at the major data points in an agency's annual report.” These provide a colorful chart and tables highlighting the status of an agency’s FOIA requests as reported at the end of the fiscal year.

FOIA.gov lets us easily generate quick reports of FOIA-processing statistics by agency. Once a little data is opened up, however, we usually want more—more data, more links, more value. I know data has been reported in text format for years before 2008; now I would like to include it in my FOIA.gov custom reports. I see that the oldest pending request at the Justice Department FOIA Office is 1,829 days old and, curiosity piqued, I want to immediately link to see what that request is. Generating reports is quick and easy, but I’d also like to be able to download the whole database and build on it myself. Above all, I want to be able to search the text of all documents supplied in response to FOIA requests. This last wish is out-of-scope for FOIA.gov, a project that currently is focused on exposing agency performance of their FOIA duties. I will keep looking for a bigger blast of FOIA sunshine and hoping that we do not have to wait for Sunshine Week 2012 to get it.


Peggy Garvin of Garvin Information Consulting writes, trains, and consults on the topic of U.S. government information resources and policy.

Email Peggy Garvin

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