Freedom of Information Act requests declined government-wide by 8 percent in fiscal year 2020 but agencies processed 12 percent fewer requests, resulting in a continuing increase in the overall backlog, GAO has reported.
It said that in the first year of the pandemic agencies received about 791,000 such requests but processed only about 773,000. While federal agencies had pre-pandemic telework policies and IT infrastructure which allowed for transitioning FOIA processing to a remote operations, several of the agencies GAO studied in detail said they experienced problems such getting as access to information technology networks, FOIA requests received by mail and agency records kept on paper.
Also, one of those agencies, the FBI, processes request through a restricted system that did not allow for telework and required the agency to take additional in-office safety precautions, it said.
“All five agencies employed strategies and leading practices to maintain operations during the pandemic, including processing requests based on their complexity, increased communication with requesters, and interim releases. These agencies also continued long-term, non-pandemic related planning efforts, such as technology updates to FOIA systems and organizational changes,” it said.
However, the GAO identified weaknesses in the backlog reduction plans of several agencies, recommending better documentation of planned actions and milestones and improvements in data.