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Transparency Watch–D.C. Agencies’ FOIA Performance in 2014: Still Many Delays and Frequent Agency Mistakes

dcogcadmin | December 27, 2015 | Last modified: September 8, 2019

DC agencies issued their statistics late for 2014 (the first late report to the D.C. Council proved incomplete and had to be called back and replaced with correct figures).

But with the 2014 data finally available in late summer 2015, here’s a look at key trends in agencies’ processing of public records requests in the District of Columbia, the first year under FOIAXpress, the District’s new online portal for receiving requests.

After years of increases, the number of requests declined, for unclear reasons. Are DC agencies’ “open data” plans bearing fruit – so that online data libraries fulfill a need formerly met by FOIA requests? Did mid-year phase-in of the centralized FOIAXpress mean some data was lost between old (individual agency) record systems and new?

Second, delay continues. It’s past time D.C. agency managers took a close look at processing times: a third of requests were answered later than the law requires and of those, 1,000 took five weeks or more.

Third, training and supervision could improve, considering the data showing agencies’ continued mistakes in rejecting requests – mistakes requiring requesters to spend time and money seeking correction by administrative appeal or in court.  The Mayor’s office attorneys find mistakes in one of every three requests appealed; more people should know that — but only a tiny fraction of denials are actually appealed.  And when a requester challenges a denial in court, again the District loses or settles most of the time.

Here are more numbers (the full report from which these are drawn is available at the link below, and prior years’ analyses are also available on the Open Government Coalition website):

  • DC agencies in 2013-14 processed 6088 requests, 8 percent fewer than the record 6600 in 2013.
  • New requests were 5558, plus an inherited backlog of 530 (cut in half by the end of the year).
  • Two-thirds of requests (66 percent) were granted in full or part, 6 percent more than in 2013.
  • Full denials were steady at 8 percent.
  • Delays decreased slightly but remain a big problem; processing time is not even reported for 750 or 12 percent.  About 30 percent took more than the three weeks the law allows (15 business days). Of the late responses, almost 1,000 took more than five weeks (how long is not reported). 
  • Administrative appeals (where a requester asks the mayor to review an agency denial) grew from 80 to 115. One in five was mooted before decision, typically by agency action releasing some records after the requester appealed.  Among the appeals decided, the mayor found agency error in one of every three.
  • The District defended agency FOIA decisions in 40 active Superior Court cases. The government track record remains poor; D.C. lost or settled 75 percent of the 28 cases that ended in 2014 and again paid out about several hundred thousand dollars in awards and settlements.
  • Agency details included: 
  • most requests: Metropolitan Police (MPD) (702) and Consumer & Regulatory Affairs (661);
  • starting the year farthest behind (requests left over from 2013): Fire & Emergency Medical Service (EMS) (200) and MPD (157);
  • most long-delayed responses (more than 26 days): MPD (239) and Fire & EMS (200);
  • most full denials: Office of Police Complaints (156) (also with the highest denial rate, 74 percent) and MPD (121);
  • most often sued: MPD (26 of 40 Superior Court active cases) and also most often losing in court, MPD (13 times by verdict or settlement).