FOIA Facts: The Return of the Backlog

Like a boomerang, FOIA backlogs are back! FOIA backlogs are the number of pending requests at an agency at any one point in time. Ok, some may argue that they never really went away. However, many agencies greatly reduced the number of cases in their FOIA backlogs during the late 1990s and earlier this decade. For instance, my old employer, the FBI, reduced its backlog from over 16,000 pending FOIA requests in 1996 to just over 2,000 in early 2002. It has now increased, even though I’m not sure of the exact number currently.

There are a number of reasons for this increase in backlog numbers. None of them are good, and all point to either inattention by upper level management to effective supervision of their FOIA programs, or intentional neglect of their FOIA programs.

An individual at the FBI, for example, has indicated to me that they are having a staffing problem, and that is why requests are stuck in their backlog. Of course he didn't go into detail as to why there is a staffing problem. I know why. FBI management made a determination to remove its FOIA operations from FBI Headquarters and relocate it to rural Virginia - Winchester to be exact.  [Editor's note:
"The FBI announces plans to relocate their records management facility to the Winchester area. The FBI will employ over 1,500 people in two facilities. Occupancy to begin 2006." LinkMany long term FBI FOIA employees, not surprisingly, declined the opportunity to uproot their families from metropolitan D.C., where they were either born or had been long term residents. Thus, the number of experienced FOIA staff, has, understandably declined.

Of course this problem should have been anticipated. However as Congress has pretty much given up on FOIA oversight – (some would argue they’ve given up on Executive Branch oversight) – no one paid attention to the problems until they got where they are today. And still, quite frankly, no one in government is paying attention to backlogs.

Reasons for increased backlogs include:

1. Reduced staffing and funding levels for FOIA offices.

2. Uncooperative program offices who refuse to allow FOIA offices to have the material needed to fulfill FOIA requests.

3. Technology snafus. There have been an number of changeovers in agencies to new computer systems that run into problems with the old databases from the old systems. Requests for information in the old systems that can’t be properly extracted sit and wait until the technology can be fixed. And the longer it takes to fix the problem, the more requests pile up, increasing backlogs.

4. Failure to see the big picture. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has a backlog, or at least they do with requests I’ve filed. As Medicare and Medicaid have become bigger parts of government, with numerous programs, the government has failed to acknowledge that there will be corresponding pressures on other parts of CMS, such as FOIA. Thus, as no one seemed to anticipate, as the agency grew so does the number and complexity of FOIA requests, giving birth to a FOIA backlog.

Until something changes, (a new Congress, a new Executive or a new forceful Department of Justice), FOIA backlogs are back and growing. So get your requests in early—you’ll have some waiting to do.