Knight Open Government Survey finds oldest unanswered FOIA request is 20 years old

Journalism / Article

(Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president)

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which is supposed to guarantee prompt responses from the government to information requests, turned 45 last week. However, the 2011 Knight Open Government Survey showed that some federal agencies have been letting requests languish for years – including a request to the National Archives dating back to 1991.

FOIA, which President Johnson signed into law in 1966, dictates that government agencies process and respond to requests within 20 days, with a possible 10-day extension to accommodate “unusual circumstances.” However, according to the 2011 Knight Open Government Survey, eight  federal agencies have requests that date back more than a decade, demonstrating that the government still has a long way to go before it successfully fulfills the terms of its own law.  

“We need public information, just like we need freedom of speech or freedom of the press,” said Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president of the Knight Foundation. “In order to be great citizens, we need to know something about what we’re voting about, we need to know how our government is working.”

In order to test which government agencies were responding promptly to FOIA requests, the National Security Archive submitted FOIA requests for copies of the ten oldest requests to 35 top agencies or components. Six months after these requests were submitted, nine of the agencies still haven’t responded.

Knight Foundation hopes to achieve several goals through National Security Archive’s grant, according to Amy Starlight Lawrence, Journalism Program Associate at the Knight Foundation. “The Knight Open Government Survey allows us to see which agencies are becoming more transparent and open, and which ones aren’t,” she says. “The National Security Archive will continue these surveys next year and beyond. We hope that this will encourage negligent agencies to improve their practices.”

In addition to the $150,000 grant to fund the 2011 Knight Open Government Survey, Knight Foundation also funded the National Security Archive’s audits of FOIA policy with a $700,000 grant in 2006 and a $150,000 grant in 2002. 

The 45th anniversary of FOIA and the results of the Knight Open Government Survey have attracted considerable media attention; both the Washington Post and the New York Times have recently covered this issue and the survey findings. The New York Times piece also mentioned the Faster FOIA Act, proposed during Sunshine Week 2011, which would create a bipartisan commission to determine the root causes of FOIA delays. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate in May and is now awaiting consideration in the House.