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Finding Agency FOIA Regulations a Shockingly Difficult Task
Washington, DC, March 14, 2014 – Nearly half (50 out of 101) of all federal agencies have still not updated their Freedom of Information Act regulations to comply with Congress's 2007 FOIA amendments, and even more agencies (55 of 101) have FOIA regulations that predate and ignore President Obama's and Attorney General Holder's 2009 guidance for a "presumption of disclosure," according to the new National Security Archive FOIA Audit released today to mark Sunshine Week.
Congress amended the Freedom of Information Act in 2007 to prohibit agencies from charging processing fees if they missed their response deadlines, to include new online journalists in the fee waiver category for the media, to order agencies to cooperate with the new FOIA ombudsman (the Office of Government Information Services, OGIS), and to require reports of specific data on their FOIA output, among other provisions co-authored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX). But half the government has yet to incorporate these changes in their regulations, according to the latest National Security Archive FOIA Audit.
After President Obama's "Day One" commitments to open government, Attorney General Eric Holder issued new FOIA guidance on March 19, 2009, declaring that agencies should adopt a "presumption of disclosure," encourage discretionary releases if there was no foreseeable harm (even if technically covered by an exemption), proactively post the records of greatest public interest online, and remove "unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles" from the FOIA process. But five years later, the Archive found a majority of agencies have old regulations that simply ignore this guidance.
The Archive's FOIA Audit also highlights some good news this Sunshine Week: New plans from both the House of Representatives and White House have the potential to compel delinquent agencies to update their regulations.
"Both Congress and the White House now recognize the problem of outdated FOIA regulations, and that is something to celebrate," said Archive director Tom Blanton. "But new regs should not follow the Justice Department's terrible lead, they must follow the best practices already identified by the FOIA ombuds office and FOIA experts."
"If and when this important FOIA reform occurs, open government watchdogs must be vigilant to ensure that the agencies' updated regulations are progressive, rather than regressive, and embrace best practices to ensure that more documents are released to requesters, more quickly" said Nate Jones, the Archive's FOIA coordinator.
The House of Representatives recently unanimously passed the bipartisan Freedom of Information Act Implementation Act (H.R. 1211), which includes a provision compelling agencies to update their FOIA regulations. The House bill — which now awaits Senate approval — would require each agency to update its FOIA regulations "not later than 180 days after the enactment of this Act."
The White House is also addressing the problem of outdated FOIA regulations, albeit in a different manner. In its latest Open Government Partnership National Action Plan, the White House has committed (on paper, at least) to creating one "core FOIA regulation and common set of practices [that] would make it easier for requesters to understand and navigate the FOIA process and easier for the Government to keep regulations up to date."
Transparency watchdogs went on alert this week after the Department of Justice's Director of Information Policy Melanie Pustay announced during her Senate testimony on March 11, 2014 that, "My office is leading that project" to create the White House-backed common regulation which, she estimated will be, "a one or two year project." Despite Pustay's pledge that she would accept input from OGIS and the requester community, her Department's history of crafting FOIA regulations has been anything but stellar.
In 2011, the back-to-back Rosemary Award-winning Department of Justice proposed FOIA regulations that would have — among many other FOIA setbacks — allowed the Department to lie to FOIA requesters, eliminated online-only publications from receiving media fee status, and made it easier to destroy records. After intense pushback by openness advocates, the DOJ temporarily pulled these regulations, and Pustay claimed, "some people misinterpreted what we were trying to do, misconstrued some of the provisions, and didn't necessarily understand some of the fee guidelines."
Pustay also claimed — to an incredulous Senate Judiciary Committee — that updating FOIA regulations to conform with the 2007 OPEN Government Act was merely optional and "not required." National Security Archive director Tom Blanton warned in his own 2013 Senate testimony that these terrible "vampire" regulations were not gone for good. This year, Pustay testified that the Department of Justice has indeed resubmitted its FOIA regulations for OMB approval; their content is unknown to the public.
As the Department of Justice and other agencies have demonstrated, new regulations do not necessarily make good regulations. As such, the National Security Archive has recommended that any updated FOIA regulations must:
The Office of Government Information Services — which reviews and comments on agency regulations as they are proposed — has also compiled a list of best practices for agencies to consider while crafting regulations. These include: "let the Freedom of Information Act itself" — and its presumption for disclosure — "be your guide;" bring attorneys, FOIA processors, records managers and IT pros to the table; include your plan for records management and preservation; and alert requesters of their option to contact OGIS for mediation and dispute resolution services.
A useful compilation of current agency FOIA regulation language — already on the books — put together by the Center of Effective Government also includes helpful guidelines on preventing the destruction of requested records; narrowly interpreting claims of confidential business information; and clarifying fee waivers and procedures.
FOIA experts are currently working to craft model, pro-transparency, CFR-ready language that agencies — or the drafters of government-wide common regulations — can use to bring agencies' Freedom of Information Act regulations up to standard. Watch this space, and then watch the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).
"As the staffer who waded through every single federal agencies' FOIA website and CFR chapter to locate their — sometimes hidden — regulations, I learned FOIA officials often say they view their FOIA requesters as customers," said Archive researcher Lauren Harper, "I think easy to find, updated model FOIA regulations are the best way for agencies to demonstrate they truly value their customer service, and the spirit of the FOIA."
The National Security Archive has conducted thirteen FOIA audits since 2002. Modeled after the California Sunshine Survey and subsequent state "FOI Audits," the Archive's FOIA Audits use open-government laws to test whether or not agencies are obeying those same laws. Recommendations from previous Archive FOIA Audits have led directly to laws and executive orders which have: set explicit customer service guidelines, mandated FOIA backlog reduction, assigned individualized FOIA tracking numbers, forced agencies to report the average number of days needed to process requests, and revealed the (often embarrassing) ages of the oldest pending FOIA requests. The surveys include:
The National Security Archive identified and audited the problem of outdated regulations in 2012. While sixteen agencies have updated their regulations since the National Security Archive's initial December 2012 FOIA regulations audit, only, seven of those agencies had regulations that were outdated to begin with. The rate of incorporating substantive best practices in these new regulations has been even more glacial.
FOIA Audit Chart Agency Updates
Review of 17 Agencies that updated their FOIA regulations:
Are Agency FOIA Regulations up to Date with FOIA Improvements?
Agencies highlighted in GREEN have updated their FOIA regulations since the passing of the Open Government Act on December 31, 2007. Agencies highlighted in RED have not updated their FOIA regulations since the passage of the act. Agencies highlighted in DARK RED have no FOIA regulations. The information about agency FOIA regulations was found by searching each agency's entry in the Code of Federal Regulations.