March 18, 2010
Despite Progress in Transparency, Obama Administration Still Slow to Act on Freedom of Information Requests
Requesters Experience Long Waits in Agency Responses, Public Citizen Attorney Tells Congress
WASHINGTON, D.C. – While the Obama administration has made a significant effort to increase government transparency, it must do better to get public records to people who request them, a Public Citizen attorney told lawmakers today.
In testimony at a congressional subcommittee’s hearing on current trends in the administration of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Adina Rosenbaum, an attorney with Public Citizen and director of the Freedom of Information Clearinghouse, applauded President Barack Obama’s commitment to government transparency and openness. But too many people still wait too long to get records, she said.
“We have found that the implementation of the goal of having an open government in response to FOIA requests has been inconsistent,” Rosenbaum told the Information Policy, Census, and National Archives Subcommittee, a part of the House of Representatives’ Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Until the problems with delays and backlogs are fixed … too many people will come out of the FOIA process believing that the process is driven by a desire for secrecy rather than openness.”
Many people seeking information under FOIA have told Rosenbaum that their requests are being responded to faster than they used to be, that they are receiving documents that used to regularly be withheld, or that they are receiving responses that are more helpful than before, she said.
Many others, however, have faced serious problems getting records they request. Long delays are common; FOIA requires agencies to respond to requesters within 20 business days, but in reality, it often takes months, or even years, for agencies to respond. In Fiscal Year 2009, for example, the median amount of time it took the Food and Drug Administration to respond to complex requests was 293 business days, Rosenbaum said.
When agencies send records to other agencies for processing, it feels to many requesters like the records go into a black hole. Information-seekers find it hard to track their requests when they are referred, Rosenbaum said.
Still other agencies withhold too much information when they do respond to requests, even when there is no exemption that applies or when there would be no foreseeable harm from releasing the information, Rosenbaum said.
Some hurdles are quite basic; Rosenbaum this month made multiple phone calls to contact an agency public liaison, but he was never at his desk and didn’t have voicemail.
If people don’t get the information they seek in a timely manner, they can’t enter critical policy debates, Rosenbaum said.
Rosenbaum called on congressional lawmakers to amend FOIA to promote the disclosure of more information and to relax standards for making older records public.
Several lawmakers are addressing FOIA problems. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) this week introduced the Faster FOIA Act of 2010, which would establish a commission to study ways to reduce delays in processing FOIA requests. The commission would make recommendations to Congress within a year.
“We support the establishment of such a commission,” Rosenbaum said. “Congress should also consider greater incentives for agencies to respond in a timely manner, such as the loss of the right to claim that records are confidential and protected if the agency has not timely processed them.”
“The past year has been an exciting time for people who care about transparency,” Rosenbaum said. “President Obama has charted a new direction for agencies with respect to government openness, but further leadership is necessary for the vision of transparency the president has articulated to be fully realized throughout the executive branch.”
Rosenbaum is director of Freedom of Information Clearinghouse, a project of Public Citizen and the Center for the Study of Responsive Law. The Clearinghouse works to ensure individuals, public interest groups and members of the media can access government information and records.
Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit www.citizen.org.