U.S. Justice Department to Create Online FOIA 'Report Card'

Open government plan will compare federal agencies' response times, request volumes and grant/denial rates, pertaining to open records requests coming through the Freedom of Information Act.

by / April 8, 2010

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) will create a Web site that compares 92 federal agencies' compliance with the Freedom of Information Act -- in hopes that the virtual "report card" will encourage them to up their game in responding to the public.

As part of the DOJ's Open Government Plan -- and in alignment with President Barack Obama's Open Government Directive -- the FOIA dashboard plan was announced Wednesday, April 7.

"The type of scrutiny that the dashboard will foster is also likely to have a favorable impact on the agencies' compliance efforts in the future," the DOJ plan states. "As agencies strive to 'race to the top' to demonstrate their commitment to openness, the dashboard will readily reflect the results."

The DOJ has a unique responsibility when it comes to FOIA. Federal law requires that the department provide guidance on FOIA-related issues to other agencies and that it collects information on FOIA compliance, DOJ new media specialist Tracy Russo wrote in a recent DOJ blog posting.

The Web site will allow the public to "shine a light" on government FOIA compliance in an understandable, user-friendly manner, Russo said. Once fully operational, a user can track the number of FOIA requests a federal agency received over a year, whether agencies granted or denied the requests and, as the site is developed, how the handling of requests changed from year to year, according to the DOJ's plan.

Such information is already available in annual FOIA reports located on the DOJ Web site, but it's "pages and pages of information" that's not easily understood by the general public, Russo said. The FOIA dashboard will present such information graphically and more easily comparable from year to year and agency by agency.

Aside from information being visually digestible, the site will allow users to sort and filter data and access only information of interest, the plan states. "For example, the user will be able to compare one agency's backlog to the government's total backlog to determine how much one particular agency contributes to the government's total backlog," the plan states.

The dashboard will also include an educational component, which will explain statutory FOIA exemptions that allow the government to withhold information for reasons related to national security, personal privacy and the need to protect witnesses and informants cooperating in law enforcement investigations, the plan states.

Some agencies respond to requests very quickly, while others have longer waiting periods and backlogs, the plan states, noting that such differences can be explained by the nature of a particular agency's work, the volume of requests received or budgetary constraints. "Regardless of the reason, the dashboard will illuminate these differences for public evaluation," according to the plan.

The first phase of the dashboard will include developing its functionality with 2009 FOIA data from 25 departments, including the DOJ, and is anticipated to be complete in September. The second phase, scheduled for completion by March 2011, will involve adding this initial data with the 2010 FOIA compliance data from all 92 federal agencies that report it.

The FOIA dashboard idea came from stakeholders in the transparency community, Russo said, like the Sunlight Foundation, AmericaSpeaks, the American Civil Liberties Union and other frequent FOIA requestors. The idea was then submitted to the DOJ's open government forum where the public, DOJ employees and other stakeholders weighed in with ideas to make the department more transparent.


Karen Wilkinson

Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.