The Justice Department official who oversees Freedom of Information Act matters told members of a House panel Thursday that the executive branch has taken significant steps towards increasing transparency, but still has room for improvement.
DOJ Office of Information Policy Melanie Pustay said federal agencies are continuing their efforts to reduce the FOIA request backlog, which she said has been cut by 50 percent since President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder both issued memoranda last year aimed at making the executive branch more transparent.
On Monday, the National Security Archive at The George Washington University released an independent audit of how federal agencies handled FOIA requests. The DOJ, Department of Agriculture, Office of Management and Budget and Small Business Administration were the only federal agencies to receive high marks in the audit of 28 federal agencies.
“We still have work to be done. There is no doubt about it,” Pustay said. “But to have done this much on backlog reduction in one year, I think it’s quite a big accomplishment.”
Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform information policy, Census and National Archives subcommittee, said the audit shows that the Obama administration’s call for improved transparency has been disregarded.
“The administration’s message of openness and transparency does not translate into concrete improvements with FOIA,” McHenry said.
Pustay said that her office will be carrying out an extensive review of agency reports on FOIA handling. The Office of Information Policy is also distributing guidance to federal agencies on FOIA practices and holding training sessions with the agencies.
“As the lead federal agency responsible for implementation of FOIA, we at the Department of Justice are especially committed to encouraging compliance with the act by all agencies and fulfilling President Obama’s goal of making his administration the most open and transparent in history,” Pustay said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also will take up legislation next Thursday that would create an advisory panel to study agency backlogs in handling FOIA requests. The bill, named the “Faster FOIA Act,” would order the panel to provide Congress with suggestions for improving the FOIA process.
“The FOIA is not perfect,” said Rep. William Clay (D-Mo.), who chairs the House subcommittee. “In the 40 years since the bill was enacted, Congress has continually reexamined its strength.”