Independent assessment finds federal agency release rate for FOIA much lower than claimed

Comic of bookie in Las Vegas
The Justice Department’s FOIbles comic book series (Photo credit: Vol II, No 2, Winter 1981. Jon Enten/Memory Hole)

On a few occasions in the past couple of months, I have heard the refrain repeated that the Obama administration has a 91 percent disclosure rate for responses under the Freedom of Information Act. Melanie Pustay, the director of the Office of Information Policy at the Justice Department, used that figure at a Columbia conference in New York in June. Shaun Donovan, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, recited it at the FOIA Advisory Committee meeting last month.

I was curious about that percentage since it sounded extremely – actually unbelievably – high to me. Professor Peter Strauss also questioned the number during the Columbia conference. I asked a colleague who is adept at data crunching to go on and see if he could figure out how you reached that number. He was able to identify the relevant FOIA data and incorporated it into the spreadsheet below.

If you include full and partial releases as constituting the total release rate, the ratio for all agencies in FY 2015 is 90.6 percent. That is likely where you are getting the 91 percent figure. That total release rate is not included as part of the FOIA data, but it has been added to the spreadsheet as the last column (highlighted in blue) by adding the released in full and released in part ratios.

If you look at the rates separately, for all agencies in FY 2015, the released in full ratio is 51.84 percent and the released in part ratio is 38.76 percent. We’ve inserted those numbers at the bottom of the spreadsheet where the total numbers for all agencies are calculated.

Two comments are in order.

First, my experience has been that including released in part in the overall “disclosure rate” is likely to be very deceptive. In one recent example from the Department of Education, the agency “released” 200 pages of documents to a FOIA requester, only two of which were not totally redacted, and those two were correspondence from the requester. This, of course, would be counted as “released” under the 91 percent tally, but not in my universe.

Second, including the Department of Homeland Security in the calculus biases the total. Persons involved in immigration proceedings have no way to obtain case files except through FOIA/PA, and those documents are routinely released. The DHS system is a good candidate for overhaul to get FOIA out of the process completely, but that’s for another day.

While I am a strong supporter of the Obama administration’s transparency efforts and initiatives in general, I believe it is misleading to repeat the 91 percent number in extolling the administration’s record. Please share this with colleagues who speak and write on FOIA performance so that their assessments can perhaps be more nuanced and meaningful.