The Obama administration came into power pledging a new era of openness, but by The Washington Post‘s account, it may be keeping more secrets than before.
In 10 of 15 Cabinet-level agencies, The Post found that folks requesting information under the federal Freedom of Information Act were less likely to get it in fiscal 2011 than the year before. The number of times agencies used exemptions under the law to withhold information increased, as did the backlog of requests, The Post found.
So on my first day back from maternity leave, I wanted to know: How’s the Education Department faring? (The Post didn’t give a complete agency-by-agency progress report that I could find online.)
Using The Post‘s 2010 to 2011 comparison as the standard, the Education Department is doing pretty well, in fact.
The latest annual FOIA report filed by the department shows it must be one of the five agencies from the Post analysis that is making more progress fulfilling requests, and not increasing its reliance on exemptions to withhold information.
- In 2011, 22 percent of the agency’s FOIA requests were denied in full, compared with 31 percent the year before.
- The department has reduced the number of backlogged requests from the previous year, from 341 at the end of 2010 to 255 at the end of 2011.
- At the same time, the department processed more requests: 2,401 in 2010 versus 2,486 last year.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the agency is even close to perfect. One concerning trend is that the department is relying more on partially denying requests, which means only some of the information a member of the public was seeking was made available. In 2011, the agency denied at least a portion of a request in 47 percent of cases, up from 35 percent in 2010.
In addition, the Education Department has several requests for information that have been pending for more than a year. In fact, the oldest request still being processed is in the department’s office of general counsel and it’s from December 2008, making it more than 720 days old. (Generally, agencies have 20 working days to respond to a request, but it can take far longer for an agency to fork over all of the information.)
Perhaps more importantly, even simple requests take the agency awhile to complete. The department takes, on average, 32 days to grant information for a simple records request. Got a complex one? Expect to wait an average of 101 days. And those are business days, folks. These response times rank right up there with the departments of Homeland Security and Defense, by the way.