Freedom of Information Act—How Open is Public Access to Government Data?

US Government Accountability Office: “The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) establishes a legal right for individuals and organizations to request access to government information. In FY 2019, federal agencies reported that they processed nearly 878,000 FOIA requests for government information, an increase of 32% since FY 2012.  

In honor of Sunshine Week—an annual observation that promotes open government—today’s WatchBlog post looks at our recent reports on agencies’ implementation of laws that seek to improve the public’s access to government information.

What does the government disclose as part of open government laws?

FOIA requires agencies to publicly post certain information without waiting for specific requests and report on these disclosures annually. These proactive disclosures include final opinions, administrative staff manuals, and records that have been requested 3 or more times.

In our March report, we assessed agency policies related to these disclosures. Among other things, we found that the Department of Housing and Urban Development did not report proactively disclosing any records from FY 2017 through 2019. Similarly, we found that the Veterans Health Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration did not report the number of records disclosed for all required categories in FY 2019.

We made 8 recommendations to help improve compliance with these requirements.

What might the government not disclose under FOIA?

FOIA requires agencies to provide the relevant records in response to a request unless an exemption applies to limit the disclosure of that information, such as withholding classified national defense or foreign policy information. The graphic below provides more detail on FOIA’s 9 exemptions.

Pie Chart showing federal exemptions to FOIA by category

In FY 2019, agencies denied approximately 34,000 requests based on exemptions. More than half of these requests were related to law enforcement and investigations….(More)”.