Anyone walking out of the Department of Justice's (DOJ) Sunshine Week celebration on March 11 with no previous exposure to the FOIA system would have thought the process is working better for requesters than ever. Records are released 94% of the time; backlogs are down; agencies are using technology to help them process requests faster. These happy stories do not represent the reality for many requesters, however.
We know from experience, and from our other friends in the requester community, that the FOIA process remains as difficult, clunky, and inefficient as it was under the previous Administration. Some agencies have even made it harder for requester to get government information: relying on an overly narrow definition of perfected requests and improperly denying fee waiver requests.
Why the disconnect between DOJ's cheery reports and the on the ground experience of requesters? One reason is that the DOJ section with responsibility for FOIA, the Office of Information Policy, does not view itself as an oversight office. DOJ's Office of Information Policy (OIP) has responsibility for providing government-wide guidance on the implementation of the FOIA. It does not view itself as responsible for helping ensure agencies are faithfully meeting their obligation to respond to public requests for information. As a result, OIP acts more a cheerleader celebrating every time an agency does something right than as the schoolmarm making sure all of the agencies did their homework.
A look behind some of the numbers and stories presented at the DOJ celebration shows how OIP acts as a cheerleader, and the very real negative consequences it has for requesters …