Business

Most Fed Agencies Out of Step With Freedom of Information Act

Most federal agencies have failed to comply with a decade-old law designed to ease public access to government information over the Internet, according to a report released Monday.

A mere one out of every five federal agencies actually complies with the Electronic Freedom of Information Act amendments, or E-FOIA, the National Security Archive said in its report.

In part, 1997’s Freedom of Information Act was aimed at spurring agencies to use the Web to publish documents proactively.

The law requires that agencies make a timely response to written requests for specific public records and other information. However, the law, often used by investigative journalists, has been viewed as too cumbersome for many to use.

“Federal agencies are flunking the online test and keeping us in the dark,” said Thomas Blanton, director of the Archive, which is based at George Washington University in Washington. “Some government sites just link to each other in an endless empty loop,” he added.

The Archive’s report, called “File Not Found,” was published as part of the Archive’s “Sunshine Week,” which is meant to highlight the openness of government agencies to public scrutiny.

Failing Grades

The Archive completed the report with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — which supports journalism. It reviews the Web sites of 91 federal agencies that employ chief FOIA officers and another 58 agencies or sub-agencies that receive at least 500 formal requests for information each year.

The survey found that 21 percent of all agencies maintain Web sites that publish all categories of records required by the law; only 6 percent of the Web sites post a comprehensive guide on how to use the FOIA to find information.

One-quarter of the agencies reviewed offer online submission forms for online requests for information, and about 36 percent provide an index of available public records online, as required by the Act. In addition, information posted on some Web sites is often misleading or wrong.

The report argues that the Internet is an essential tool in helping reduce the amount of government activity that takes place out of the public eye.

“Public access on the Web to government information is the only long-term solution to the backlogs and delays that undermine the FOIA today,” Meredith Fuchs, general counsel at the Archive. “This audit plus Congressional oversight should provide a wake-up call to the agencies.”

Some agencies at least meet the spirit of the law, the report says. The Department of Education and NASA were singled out as having excellent Web sites. At the other end of the spectrum, the Air Force, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Veterans Affairs Web sites were deemed to be among the most deficient in terms of complying with the law.

Focus on Improvement

The Archive has audited FOIA compliance five times in five years; some of the center’s findings have led to Congressional hearings and other changes.

The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government also has found serious flaws in how information requests are handled, including a growing backlog of such inquiries.

Although the FOIA requires that agencies take no more than 20 days to respond to written requests for records, it found that during 2005 only 41 percent of the requests filed were met in full, down from 55 percent in 2000.

Taken together with recent revelations that the FBI knowingly violated the law in combing through consumer records and the dispute over telecom companies turning over data to law enforcement agencies, the failure to comply with FOIA paints a picture of a government that favors secrecy over openness.

“The access-to-information issues aside, the government recognizes opportunity to be more efficient and cost-conscious by using the Internet to its advantage,” said Chris Campbell, an analyst with IT research firm Input.

In the face of the increasing number of users looking for information online, President Bush has significantly boosted spending on Internet initiatives aimed at reducing paperwork and streamlining government in general.

“Public expectations for online access to information is certainly growing every day,” Campbell added.

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