Saturday, September 10, 2016

DOJ Proudly Trumpets Its Completely BS 91% FOIA Response Rate

from the transparency-through-statistical-manipulation dept

Tom Susman, a member of the FOIA Advisory Committee, emailed the heads of the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) and Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) on the discrepancy between the misleading 91 percent FOIA release rate commonly cited by OIP – and repeated by the rest of the government – and the more accurate release rate calculated by the Archive and others of between 50 and 60 percent.
The only entity that believes the DOJ has fulfilled 9 out of 10 FOIA requests is the DOJ. Anyone on the receiving end of its "responses" finds this number laughable.
First off, the DOJ's apparently including the thousands of requests it fulfills years after they've been requested. It's also including partial responses. And its hit rate is greatly padded by "releases" in which nothing was actually released.
[M]y 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.
Also likely included in the DOJ's inflated sense of self-worth:
- Fulfillments where "no responsive documents can be found," even when it's clearthere are documents to be found
- Responses where the DOJ has claimed it can't find documents it has alreadyreleased publicly
- Responses where the DOJ has been forced to turn over documents by court decisions
The number released by the DOJ is just plain dishonest. It gives the "most transparent administration" a win it clearly hasn't earned and misrepresents the FOIA experience to the general public. It gives the DOJ something to further ward off FOIA reform attempts and implies that those who do complain about its general unresponsiveness are probably blowing things out of proportion.
As Lauren Harper of Unredacted points out, the touting of this bogus success rate only makes it less likely the federal government will seriously address its constant FOIA shortcomings.
When the White House, DOJ, or others cite a 91 percent “success statistic” their aim is to present a view to the public that FOIA is working 91 percent of the time. Anyone that has looked at the stats – including the blanket denials, redactions, decades long waits – or has filed a FOIA request, knows that this “statistic” is far from the truth. A better track for the administration would be to candidly acknowledge the problems facing FOIA and work openly to fix them.
Let's face it: the DOJ isn't going to change until forced to -- "presumption of disclosure" or not. This administration has done almost nothing to push for greater transparency and neither of the incoming presidential candidates -- Hillary "Homebrew" Clinton or Donald "I Can Make My Own Laws, Right?" Trump -- are likely to have a positive effect on government accountability going forward.
Certainly, there are still legislators who are pushing for better transparency, but they're stymied by powerful agencies like the DOJ -- and, often, the administration itself. The DOJ presides over agencies which have done everything but order a hit on prolific FOIA requesters like Jason Leopold. And, while the move towards a "release to one, release to all" policy on FOIA responses is better for the public in general, it's also likely intended to discourage journalists from chasing down obscure government secrets by removing the possibility of "scooping" competitors.
The worst part is the DOJ likely doesn't care whether the general public believes its inflated response numbers. Like far too many federal agencies, it has long since shrugged off any pretense of acting in the public's interest. Its "91%" whitewash of its FOIA responsiveness covers up a 50-60% response rate -- one that's likely good enough for government work. Especially the sort of work few in the government show any interest in performing.

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