Date: Friday, March 17, 2023
Today, the Department of the Interior released its 2023 Chief Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Officer Report, which outlines how the agency administers its FOIA program and specific steps taken by bureaus to improve FOIA operations. While an increase in the number of FOIA requests has added to the agency’s backlog, the Department processed a larger number of FOIAs in fiscal year 2022 than the previous year and continues to make progress.
The Department is implementing systemic changes to enhance the processing quality and capacity of the bureau FOIA offices. This includes establishing an operational support team to provide direct support to bureaus and offices with significant backlogs. Within the Office of the Secretary, the operational support team has closed 61% of FOIA requests submitted during or before fiscal year 2019. In so doing, the team developed a strategic backlog-reduction approach involving extensive auditing, review by trained attorneys and increased requester outreach.
As the data suggests, there has been a significant increase in requests for several bureaus that has led to increased backlogs. The Department’s overall backlog increase in fiscal year 2022 was in part due to an approximate 12% increase in the number of FOIA requests received by the National Park Service (NPS), resulting in the largest number of requests ever received by NPS. Notably, the NPS also processed more requests in fiscal year 2022 than ever before.
Despite the increase in backlogged requests for some bureaus, many others were successful in reducing their backlogs, including the Bureau of Reclamation, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and the U.S. Geological Survey. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management reduced the number of backlogged requests by 93%. BOEM and the Fish and Wildlife Service also provided support to the Office of the Solicitor to reduce their backlog by approximately 33%.
The Department remains committed to facilitating timely responses to requests and in the next fiscal year plans to deploy an improved FOIA request tracking and case management system, launch additional FOIA training for employees, and explore ways to expand the scope of operational support provided to bureaus to directly target and reduce backlogs.