Transparency Watch

Using DocumentCloud, FOIA Project to track requests, responses by agency

The FOIA Project has documented more evidence of what its staff calls apparent failure of the Obama administration to fulfill transparency promises, and an upcoming expansion of the project could be a step toward establishing definitive evidence regarding the administration's level of transparency.  

At the end of December, the DocumentCloud-powered venture from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University reported that there were more court complaints asking federal judges to force FOIA decisions under Obama’s first term than under the last term of his predecessor, President Bush. Over the last two years Bush’s second term and the last two years of Mr. Obama’s first term, complaints increased from 562 to 720 -- a jump of 28 percent.

The FOIA Project’s findings follow reports over the past two years from the Washington Post, Scripps Howard News Service and Bloomberg News noting little improvement in open records since Obama’s memorandum at the beginning of his term calling for more transparency and that 19 of 20 cabinet-level agencies did not comply with basic FOIA requests.

The rise in lawsuits alone could be a result of several factors that remain unknown without delving into the details of each case, TRAC co-director Susan Long said, and by itself doesn’t show any definitive worsening in transparency.

“I don’t think there’s going to be any simple explanation, but the evidence is piling up that this administration isn’t delivering on its promises here,” Long said of the lawsuits. “It also corrodes public trust. That’s a very, very harmful thing. It’s a pretty core area of importance, and all the signals are really bad.”

Since 2011, the FOIA Project has gathered FOIA-related court cases, and now has a comprehensive repository going back eight years.

And soon, hopefully within the month, Long said, The FOIA Project will launch a new tool to track individual FOIA requests by agency.

Long said the goal of tracking FOIA requests is to determine what responses are like in more detail than the annual reports available at FOIA.gov. For instance, a heavily redacted document that offers no new information would be counted as a partial release rather than a denial.

“We want the transactional data that drives those annual reports,” Long said. “What is the basis for what they are saying no to? Do they sometimes grant fees? Are charges different? Are delays different for different kinds of requests? There are a ton of routine requests, but how long does it take to publish requests of real public interest?”

With a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, TRAC has been developing a test application using FOIA logs from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Eventually, the app will track a number of agencies, and will rely on user feedback to determine which agencies to include first. The site also offers the ability for users to upload their own documents.

“We’re trying to build not a complaint center, but something that is documented so people can think ‘there is a systematic problem’ and either document it or disprove it.”

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