BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Freedom of Information Act, the means whereby US citizens may petition the government for information has been around since 1966 but, according to the Center for Effective Government, federal agencies haven’t quite yet mastered the art of disclosing. This week, the center released the first ever quantifiable measure of how 15 key government agencies process FOIA requests, called the Access to Information Scorecard 2014. It assessed the process, the rules and the websites of the 15 most FOIA’d and government agencies and assigned them a standard letter grade, like in school, on a scale of A to F.
Sean Moulton is the Director of Open Government Policy at the Center for Effective Government and the co-author of the report. Sean, welcome to On the Media. SEAN MOULTON: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If this is the first quantifiable look at the way the government processes FOIAs, what does that mean? What was done in the past?
SEAN MOULTON: The Department of Justice has been collecting information for years. This is the first time anyone outside the government has really tried to score it over the entire realm of implementation, who's doing well and who’s doing badly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you divide that realm basically into three areas. One is process. That's the fullness of the information provided and how long it takes. The second area is the rules for getting access: what's the agency policy on providing information? And the third area is simply, how easy is the website to use?
SEAN MOULTON: Processing, even though it was only one of the three areas, was worth half of the overall grade –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
SEAN MOULTON: - all by itself. Processing measures how well they are using their staff, how many resources they’re dedicating to this, how well they’re communicating with requesters, with other agencies. Rules and websites were considered each to be worth 25% of the overall grade.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The rules by which they would release information.
SEAN MOULTON: Yeah, their FOIA regulation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
SEAN MOULTON: Whether or not they had commitments to acknowledge requests as soon as they get them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How, across the board, did the agencies do?
SEAN MOULTON: They struggled, they really did. Seven of those fifteen agencies received a failing grade. Nobody got an A.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Among the best, in what area did they do the best?
SEAN MOULTON: It really was a mix. The Social Security Administration, the, the top performer, they excelled in processing, by far. They did less well on their regulation and their website. The Department of Justice, who came in second, reversed that. Their processing was mediocre. They got a D+. But they did extremely well on both their rules and their website.
But I should note that they have a proposed rule they put out about a year ago that had some very troubling provisions in it. They would be able to lie to people about the existence of records, in response to their requests.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They could say to a requester, that record doesn't exist?
SEAN MOULTON: Correct. Right now, most agencies will tell you if you ask for something around, let’s say, an investigation, they’ll say, we can't confirm or deny that record.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But actively lying about it will put an investigator off that trail entirely.
SEAN MOULTON: Correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, in fact, on this show we have talked about cases where the Department of Justice has been caught lying and has had to double back. So maybe it was just trying to legitimize a practice that it was already following.
SEAN MOULTON: There is definitely a concern that that is what they're trying to do with this rule. But it's still a troubling practice and a practice we don't want to see other agencies start to adopt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hell, no! And the Department of Justice got a B. Let’s talk now about the absolute worst. These are the seven agencies that received an overall failing grade: The Departments of Labor, Veterans Affairs, Defense, Homeland Security and State. The absolutely lowest-scoring department was the Department of State. What [LAUGHS] made it so bad?
SEAN MOULTON: An absolutely abysmal processing score. They scored a 17% on processing. Without a doubt, they are slow. They do not disclose much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Somewhere between Beijing and the Kremlin?
SEAN MOULTON: Something like that, I think.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right, let's talk about Homeland Security. We basically hold it up as the exemplar of government opacity at its worst. Are we wrong?
SEAN MOULTON: They were tied for the second lowest score, at an overall score of 51%. I mean, if it wasn't for State, they would have looked horrible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHING] So Sean, I saw your list of recommendations - establish effective disclosure rules, train personnel better, streamline workflow issues, create user-friendly, interactive websites - doable things to strengthen the body that underpins FOIA. But the spirit still has to be willing. Unless the Department of Justice, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security are inclined to fulfill these requests, it doesn't matter how much they streamline their system.
SEAN MOULTON: You're talking about culture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
SEAN MOULTON: There's no easy recommendation on how do you change culture. What we’re trying to do is little by little chip away at that culture, to create new habits. The hope is that, as we continue to raise the bar and get other things good about the rule and the website and, and how they process, the hope is that it continues to help nudge that culture in a different direction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From the outside in. Like they say, if you smile eventually you'll get into a good mood.
SEAN MOULTON: [LAUGHS] Basically yes, including the attitude of the government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
SEAN MOULTON: It’s been a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sean Moulton is the Director of Open Government Policy at the Center for Effective Government.