The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enacted into law more than 50 years ago, requires Federal Departments and Agencies to provide the public access to Government records and information based on the principles of openness and accountability in government. The FOIA’s expectation is that Departments and Agencies will implement the law with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. Failure to provide timely and accurate responses to requests under the FOIA not only weakens public trust, but also subjects a Department or Agency to potential lawsuits. The FOIA mandates that Federal entities must respond to requests within 20 days, with some exceptions.
Each year, individuals and entities file hundreds of thousands of requests under the FOIA with the Federal Government for information on numerous topics intended to shed light on the Government’s activities and contribute to the understanding of the Government’s actions. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) receives hundreds of FOIA requests each year. USAID is committed to the principles embodied in the FOIA and responds to all requests in an open and transparent manner. While USAID has made significant improvements in the overall administration of our FOIA program in recent years, including by reducing a backlog that once spanned several decades, a FOIA-request backlog still remains. USAID defines a “backlogged” request as one that remains pending beyond the statutory 20-day time period.
Accordingly, USAID has taken significant steps to improve our FOIA-request processing, as evidenced by our year-over-year improved processing performance. For example, since Fiscal Year (FY) 2011, USAID’s average processing time for simple FOIA requests decreased from 166.91 days to 10.78 days in FY 2017. Similarly, the average processing time for complex FOIA requests decreased from 324.18 days in FY 2011 to 291.48 days in FY 2017. USAID also improved our average number of days to adjudicate requests for expedited processing from 78.85 days in FY 2013 to 3.3 days in FY 2014. USAID has sustained this improved rate through FY 2018. Additionally, the Agency’s average processing time for administrative appeals decreased from 504.33 days in FY 2011 to 219.67 days in FY 2017. Further, the number of administrative appeals backlogged at the end of the Fiscal Year decreased from 23 in FY 2011 to only 2 in FY 2017. As a result of comprehensive searches and legally defensible analyses, USAID has seen a significant decrease in administrative appeals filed. Lastly, in accordance with the guidelines published by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), USAID closed our 10 oldest FOIA requests, administrative appeals, and consultations for the past 5 consecutive years, beginning in FY 2013.
USAID views the FOIA’s statutory mandates as integral to providing transparency and accountability to the American public and is committed to compliance with its requirements. As required by the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, and in accordance with the Agency’s FOIA Improvement Plan, USAID successfully overhauled our August 1996 FOIA regulations (Part 212 of Chapter 22 of the Code of Federal Regulations), in time to meet the aggressive 180-day deadline of December 27, 2016, established by the Act.
As a testament to this commitment, USAID has developed this formal FOIA-Backlog-Reduction Plan, which documents our ongoing efforts to institutionalize further currently employed best practices and define others to eliminate the FOIA-request backlog, centered on the following key areas of success:
- Obtaining Leadership Support;
- Routinely Reviewing Processing Metrics;
- Using Resources Effectively;
- Increasing Staff Training and Engagement;
- Increasing Proactive Disclosure; and
- Communicating Effectively with Internal and External Stakeholders.
Executive Order (E.O.) 13392, Improving Agency Disclosure of Information, states that a FOIA backlog- reduction plan should include the following: (1) staffing and Agency support for FOIA activities; and, (2) “specific activities that the Agency will implement to eliminate or reduce the Agency’s FOIA request backlog, including (as applicable) changes that will make the processing of FOIA requests more streamlined and effective, and increase reliance on the dissemination of records that can be made available to the public through a website or other means that do not require the public to make a request for the records under the FOIA.” To meet the requirements of DOJ and E.O. 13392, this FOIA-Backlog-Reduction Plan provides a roadmap to reduce USAID’s backlog of FOIA requests; improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the FOIA program; serve the FOIA-requester community better; and continue USAID’s commitment to open government through transparency, participation, and collaboration.