Understanding FOIA Delay

President Truman’s train might have run on a tight schedule, but unfortunately delay is a frequent part of the FOIA process. (NARA Identifier 199961)

One of the frustrations with the FOIA process that we hear about most frequently is the delay in an agency’s response to a request. Frequently, requesters contact us to ask why an agency has not responded within the 20 working days response time that is prescribed in the law. We understand that delays are extremely frustrating; unfortunately they are all too common at agencies that receive a large volume of requests and at agencies that are struggling to respond to a backlog of old requests.

To help requesters understand why an agency’s response may be delayed, we thought it might be useful to give you all a quick guide to where you can find statistics about an agency’s FOIA performance, and give you a few helpful hints on how to use these resources.

First: Where can you find agency FOIA performance data? Agencies report a broad range of statistics at the end of each Fiscal Year (FY) about their FOIA processing operations in annual reports that the agency submits to the Attorney General of the United States. You can generally access these reports on at least one of two websites: the agency’s FOIA reading room or the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Information Policy (OIP) FOIA Reports Web Page. OIP’s webpage provides a centralized repository of agency Annual FOIA Reports going back to FY 1998. OIP also manages a website, FOIA.gov, that allows users to pull up, compare, and download data from these reports from FY 2008 forward.

Second: What data points might help you understand an agency’s delay? [See How to find “backlog” data on FOIA.gov for a visual guide to creating reports on FOIA.gov]

  • Requests Received and Processed

The first data point we generally look at to understand an agency’s FOIA program is the number of requests that it received and processed during the Fiscal Year. These numbers will help you understand the demand for information from that agency, and the amount of work the agency was able to complete during the Fiscal Year.

If you are looking at a PDF of the agency’s report, you can find this information at the beginning of Section V, “FOIA Requests – Received, Processed and Pending FOIA Requests.” If you are using FOIA.gov to look up this information, you will want to click on the “Data” tab. Under “Select Report” choose “Requests” (this should be the default choice) and then select the agency. Click each Fiscal Year you would like to see data for and then push the “Create Report” button. A graph and the hard data will appear on the screen below.

  • Backlog

If you have already looked at information about the number of requests received and requests processed, then you also saw data about the number of FOIA requests pending at the end of the Fiscal Year. The difference between “Requests Pending” and “Backlog” is that “Backlog” includes only those requests that the agency was not able to respond to within the law’s 20 working days response time. Since agencies generally process FOIA requests on a first-in, first-out basis, understanding an agency’s backlog can help you get a sense of why it might take some time before the agency is able to respond to your request.

In the PDFs of the agency Annual FOIA Reports, Backlog is towards the end of the report, in Section XII, “Backlogs, Consultations, and Comparisons.” On FOIA.gov, on the “Data” tab, simply select the report for “Backlog,” choose the agency, click each Fiscal Year of interest, and then click on “Create Report.” A graph and the hard data will appear on the screen below.

  • Average Processing Time

Agencies report the average processing time for simple and complex cases. This data will help you understand about how long other requesters had to wait until they received a response from that agency.

In a PDF of an Annual FOIA Report, you can find this information under Section VII, “FOIA Requests: Response Time for Processed and Pending Requests.”  You can use the charts in that Section to look up the average processing time for all requests processed and for all requests where information was released during the Fiscal Year. In addition to the average, the Section also includes information on the median processing time and the lowest and highest number of days an agency took to respond to a request.

On FOIA.gov, you will find this information by selecting the “Processing Times” report and then choosing either “Pending Requests” or “Requests Granted.” Once you have chosen the report, generate a graph and the hard data by, choosing the agency, putting a checkmark next to the Fiscal Year(s) of interest, and then clicking on “Create Report.”

Do you have any other data from agency annual reports that you find helpful? Let us know via tweet to @FOIA_Ombuds or emailing us at ogis@nara.gov.