oversight

Freedom of Information Act: Key Website Is Generally Reliable, but Action Is Needed to Ensure Completeness of Its Reports

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2012-06-28.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

             United States Government Accountability Office

GAO          Report to the Committee on
             Oversight and Government Reform
             House of Representatives


June 2012
             FREEDOM OF
             INFORMATION ACT
             Key Website Is
             Generally Reliable,
             but Action Is Needed
             to Ensure
             Completeness of Its
             Reports




GAO-12-754
                                                 June 2012

                                                 FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT
                                                 Key Website Is Generally Reliable, but Action Is
                                                 Needed to Ensure Completeness of Its Reports
Highlights of GAO-12-754, a report to the
Committee on Oversight and Government
Reform, House of Representatives




Why GAO Did This Study                           What GAO Found
FOIA establishes a legal right of                The Department of Justice’s (Justice) website called FOIA.gov presents data
access to government information on              from agencies’ annual Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reports. Agencies
the basis of principles of openness and          submit their annual reports to Justice in print and in electronic form and Justice
accountability in government. To                 posts the electronic data onto the website. For fiscal year 2010, the data GAO
facilitate the public’s ability to obtain        reviewed on the website were generally consistent with the data in the agencies’
information on federal agencies’                 print versions. According to Justice officials, the department has taken steps to
compliance with FOIA and other                   ensure accuracy and consistency of the data. These steps include providing
information related to the act, Justice          annual training to agency personnel who are responsible for preparation of the
launched a website—FOIA.gov—in
                                                 FOIA annual reports and posting guidance for report completion and submission
March 2011. Accordingly, GAO was
                                                 on the Office of Information Policy website. In addition, the department has
requested to determine (1) the origin
and reliability of the data on FOIA.gov
                                                 implemented checks to ensure data consistency between the two report
and (2) the actions being taken to               versions. Specifically, it has developed and provided agencies with a tool to be
improve FOIA.gov and develop                     used in creating the electronic version for the website. The tool contains features
additional capabilities. To accomplish           that assist agencies in compiling their data and math checks to help ensure
these objectives, GAO reviewed                   consistency. Further, Justice officials have a checklist they use as a guide for
Justice’s plan for the website and               checking the consistency of the electronic versions of agencies’ annual reports
analyzed the consistency of the data             against the print versions. However, FOIA.gov’s “Advanced Reporting” feature,
on FOIA.gov and the completeness of              which provides users with the capability to generate custom reports based on
the results provided by the website’s            user-selected queries, did not always produce complete results. Specifically,
feature that allows users to create              certain reports showed data for fewer than the 97 agencies that should have
custom reports. GAO also interviewed             been included. Justice officials stated that they had taken steps to correct the
cognizant Justice and other agency               specific instances of incomplete reports that GAO had identified. Nevertheless,
officials.                                       GAO’s experience in using FOIA.gov raises concerns about whether the website
                                                 will produce complete reports in response to all queries.
What GAO Recommends                              Justice has made improvements to FOIA.gov since the website’s initial
GAO recommends that Justice ensure               deployment in March 2011. For example, the department added a search feature
that the “Advanced Reporting” feature            to help users locate information on an agency’s website, including documents
on FOIA.gov produces reports that are            agencies have released in response to previous FOIA requests. Further, in
complete. In written comments on a               March 2012, the department added information in the Spanish language, as well
draft of this report, the Director of            as links to agencies’ FOIA web portals. While Justice does not intend to expand
Justice’s Office of Information Policy           FOIA.gov’s capabilities to serve as an internal FOIA processing system, three
agreed with GAO’s recommendation.                other agencies—the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of
                                                 Commerce, and the National Archives and Records Administration—have
                                                 undertaken the development of a multiagency system that is intended to
                                                 complement FOIA.gov and provide such capabilities.




View GAO-12-754. For more information,
contact Valerie C. Melvin at (202) 512-6304 or
melvinv@gao.gov.

                                                                                         United States Government Accountability Office
Contents


Letter                                                                                                   1
               Conclusions                                                                               3
               Recommendation for Executive Action                                                       3
               Agency Comments and Our Evaluation                                                        3

Appendix I     Briefing for Staff Members of the Committee on Oversight and
               Government Reform, House of Representatives                                               5



Appendix II    Department of Justice                                                                     30



Appendix III   Department of Commerce                                                                    32



Appendix IV    National Archives and Records Administration                                              33



Appendix V     GAO Contact & Staff Acknowledgments                                                       34




               Abbreviations
               Commerce          Department of Commerce
               EPA               Environmental Protection Agency
               FOIA              Freedom of Information Act
               Justice           Department of Justice
               NARA              National Archives and Records Administration

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               Page i                                              GAO-12-754 Freedom of Information Act
United States Government Accountability Office
Washington, DC 20548




                                   June 28, 2012

                                   The Honorable Darrell Issa
                                   Chairman
                                   The Honorable Elijah Cummings
                                   Ranking Member
                                   Committee on Oversight
                                     and Government Reform
                                   House of Representatives

                                   The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 1 establishes a legal right of
                                   access to government information on the basis of principles of openness
                                   and accountability in government. FOIA allows the public to request
                                   information from federal agencies, which the agencies are required to
                                   provide, subject to specified exemptions that allow protection for discrete
                                   categories of information. 2 To help ensure accountability, FOIA requires
                                   that agencies provide an annual report to the Attorney General; these
                                   reports include information as specified in the act, such as how many
                                   requests were received and processed in the previous fiscal year, how
                                   many requests were pending at the end of the fiscal year, and the median
                                   times that agencies or their components took to process the requests. 3 To
                                   make the data from agencies’ annual FOIA reports more usable (i.e.,
                                   searchable) and to serve as an educational resource for the public and
                                   agencies, the Department of Justice (Justice) launched the website,
                                   www.FOIA.gov, in March 2011.

                                   At your request, we conducted a study of the FOIA.gov website. As
                                   agreed to with the staff of your committee, our objectives were to
                                   determine (1) the origin of the data on FOIA.gov and how reliable are the
                                   data and (2) the actions being taken to improve FOIA.gov and develop
                                   additional capabilities.




                                   1
                                    5 U.S.C. § 552.
                                   2
                                    These exemptions permit restrictions on public disclosure for reasons such as protection
                                   of personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.
                                   3
                                    In an ordered set of values, the median is a value below and above which there is an
                                   equal number of values; if there is no one middle number, it is the arithmetic mean
                                   (average) of the two middle values.




                                   Page 1                                             GAO-12-754 Freedom of Information Act
On April 30, 2012, we provided your offices with briefing slides that
outlined the results of our study and we met with your staff to discuss our
findings, conclusions, and recommendation. The purpose of this report is
to provide the published briefing slides to you and to officially transmit our
recommendation to the Department of Justice. The slides, which discuss
our scope and methodology, are included in appendix I.

We performed our work in support of this performance audit at the
Department of Justice and at the Department of Commerce (Commerce),
the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Archives
and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C., from October
2011 to April 2012, in accordance with generally accepted government
auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the
audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable
basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We
believe that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our
findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives.

In summary, our review highlighted the following:

•   The FOIA.gov website presents data that originate in the FOIA annual
    reports that agencies are required to submit to Justice. The website’s
    fiscal year 2010 data were generally consistent with data that were
    contained in agencies’ published FOIA annual reports. According to
    officials in the Office of Information Policy, the department has taken
    steps to ensure the accuracy and consistency of the data. These
    steps include, but are not limited to, providing annual training to
    agency personnel who are responsible for preparation of the FOIA
    annual reports and posting guidance for report completion and
    submission on the Office of Information Policy website. However, the
    “Advanced Reporting” feature on FOIA.gov did not always yield
    reports that were complete. For example, certain reports showed data
    for fewer than the 97 agencies that should have been included. We
    discussed these incomplete reports with the Director of the Office of
    Information Policy and an official from Justice’s Chief Information
    Officer’s staff. According to these officials, the department has
    resolved the incomplete reports we identified. Nonetheless, the
    incomplete results are cause for concern about whether FOIA.gov will
    produce complete reports for all queries.

•   Justice has made improvements to FOIA.gov since the website’s
    initial deployment in March 2011. For example, the department added
    a search feature to help users locate information on an agency’s



Page 2                                      GAO-12-754 Freedom of Information Act
                         website, including documents agencies have released in response to
                         previous FOIA requests. While Justice does not intend to expand
                         FOIA.gov’s capabilities to serve as an internal FOIA processing
                         system, EPA, Commerce, and NARA have undertaken development
                         of a multiagency system that is intended to complement FOIA.gov and
                         provide such capabilities.


                     As intended, the FOIA.gov website is populated with data that originate in
Conclusions          the FOIA annual reports that federal agencies are required to submit to
                     Justice. While these data for fiscal year 2010 are generally consistent
                     with those presented in agencies’ published annual reports, the website’s
                     feature that provides users with the capability to generate customized
                     reports was not reliable because it did not always provide complete
                     results.

                     Justice has made improvements to enhance FOIA.gov, including the
                     addition of a governmentwide search feature; however, it does not intend
                     for the website to include capabilities that agencies would use to support
                     management of their FOIA processes (e.g., processing FOIA requests).
                     EPA, Commerce, and NARA are currently engaged in a project to
                     develop a multiagency system that is intended to compliment FOIA.gov
                     and provide such capabilities.


                     To ensure the reliability of reports generated from the “Advanced
Recommendation for   Reporting” feature of the Department of Justice’s website, FOIA.gov, we
Executive Action     recommended that the Director of the Office of Information Policy, in
                     conjunction with the department’s Chief Information Officer, make certain
                     that the website’s “Advanced Reporting” feature produces complete
                     reports in response to all queries.


                     The Department of Justice provided written comments on a draft of this
Agency Comments      report, signed by the Director of the Office of Information Policy. In its
and Our Evaluation   comments, the department agreed with our recommendation. The
                     Director stated that, while the department’s Office of the Chief Information
                     Officer has resolved the issue of some agencies and components of
                     agencies not appearing in certain reports generated by the FOIA.gov
                     advanced reporting feature, the Office of Information Policy, in
                     conjunction with the Office of the Chief Information Officer, will perform
                     additional testing to re-confirm that the FOIA.gov advanced reporting
                     feature is producing complete reports. The Director also noted that, while


                     Page 3                                     GAO-12-754 Freedom of Information Act
the department does not intend for FOIA.gov to serve as an internal FOIA
processing system for agencies, the website includes features that can
assist agencies with their management of FOIA, such as, the ability to
compare and contrast their own performance over time and with that of
other agencies, assess trends, analyze processing times, and determine
whether information responsive to a FOIA request is already publicly
available. We agree that these capabilities have the potential to assist
agencies in their management of FOIA. The comments are reproduced in
appendix II.

Further, we received written comments from the Department of
Commerce, signed by the Chief Financial Officer and Assistant Secretary
for Administration, and from the National Archives and Records
Administration, signed by the Archivist of the United States. These
comments are reproduced in appendixes III and IV, respectively. In its
comments, Commerce concurred that FOIA.gov is different from, but
complimentary to, the multiagency FOIA web portal the department is
developing with NARA and EPA. The Archivist commented on the
importance of the accuracy and completeness of the data on FOIA.gov.
We also requested, but did not receive comments from, the
Environmental Protection Agency.


We are sending copies of this report to interested congressional
committees. We are also sending copies to the Attorney General; the
Director, Office of Information Policy; and other interested parties. Copies
of this report will also be available at no charge on GAO’s website at
http://www.gao.gov.

If you or your staffs have any questions on matters discussed in this
report, please contact me at (202) 512-6304 or melvinv@gao.gov.
Contact points for our Offices of Congressional Relations and Public
Affairs may be found on the last page of this report. GAO staff who made
major contributions to this report are listed in appendix II.




Valerie C. Melvin
Director
Information Management
   and Technology Resources Issues




Page 4                                     GAO-12-754 Freedom of Information Act
Appendix I: Briefing for Staff Members of the
               Appendix I: Briefing for Staff Members of the
               Committee on Oversight and Government
               Reform, House of Representatives


Committee on Oversight and Government
Reform, House of Representatives




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Appendix I: Briefing for Staff Members of the
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Reform, House of Representatives




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Appendix II: Department of Justice
              Appendix II: Department of Justice




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Appendix II: Department of Justice




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Appendix III: Department of Commerce
             Appendix III: Department of Commerce




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Appendix IV: National Archives and Records
              Appendix IV: National Archives and Records
              Administration



Administration




              Page 33                                      GAO-12-754 Freedom of Information Act
Appendix V: GAO Contact & Staff
                            Appendix V: GAO Contact &
                            Staff Acknowledgments



Acknowledgments

                  Valerie C. Melvin, (202) 512-6304 or melvinv@gao.gov
GAO Contact
                  In addition to the contact named above, Mark Bird (Assistant Director),
Staff             Elena Epps, Nancy Glover, Jacqueline Mai, and Christy Tyson made key
Acknowledgments   contributions to this report.




(310991)
                  Page 34                                  GAO-12-754 Freedom of Information Act
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