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The Freedom of Information Act: What The Numbers Tell Us

Agencies’ Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) records show that agencies have indeed made disclosure through FOIA a priority this past year.

New numbers are in.  Agencies’ Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) records show that agencies have indeed made disclosure through FOIA a priority this past year.  According to the latest annual reports collected by the Justice Department, the use of FOIA exemptions by the fourteen cabinet departments decreased over the last year.  Agencies are sharing more and withholding less.

Agencies also report that they relied on exemptions 2 and 5—those most within their discretion—far less frequently over the past year, down 20 percent and 26 percent respectively.  And of all FOIA requests processed for the possible applicability of exemptions across all agencies to which FOIA applies, the government made partial or full disclosures about 93 percent of the time; in only some 7 percent of those cases did agencies withhold all requested documents.  What’s more, in about 56 percent of the cases, the agency made a full disclosure, up a full 6 percent over last year.  Agencies reduced their FOIA backlogs as well—the cabinet agencies by 10.9 percent and all agencies across the government by 10.2 percent.

To be sure, measuring agencies’ FOIA track record is not as easy as simply reporting numbers.  First, statistics about how many FOIA requests agencies have processed, for example, or how many times they have invoked FOIA exemptions, do not speak for themselves.  After all, where FOIA requests implicate personal privacy, business confidentiality, law enforcement, or the national defense, among other areas, the law requires agencies to withhold information.  Second, as agencies comply with the President and Attorney General’s directives to make more information available proactively—before any FOIA request—information sought through FOIA will tend to be that which requires the use of some exemptions. In other words, the very success of agencies’ affirmative efforts will lead to a body of FOIA requests to which exemptions are more likely to apply.

Agencies’ FOIA progress should therefore be measured in qualitative as well as quantitative ways.  And here, too, there are many indications of success, as collected at DOJ’s Office of Information Policy’s website. Of course, greater disclosure requires investment over the long term. The Administration will continue efforts to promote FOIA’s implementation and greater openness in government.