Last night, the DC Open Government Coalition, of which POGO is a member, hosted a valuable public forum to get open government issues on the agenda of candidates running for elected local office. The Coalition provided sample questions for the candidates, such as whether they would support the creation of an independent agency or ombudsman to oversee DC government compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and whether they would support creating penalties for agency directors who do not comply with DC’s open government laws.
To illustrate why opengov issues should be on the mind of voters, the Coalition presented the findings of two recent audits it conducted of DC’s open government performance. The first audit was conducted in conjunction with the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University and students from Howard University. The students found that in only 54 percent of the time, DC agencies and commissions complied with requirements to post public records on their websites. For example, only eight websites provided the public with links to a FOIA page, and "only one agency met the charge to post on its website 'the names, salaries, titles, and dates of employment of all employees and officers.'"
The second audit requested from 34 DC agencies all FOIA denial letters from 2005 to the present. The Coalition thought this to be an easy request because DC law requires agencies to keep all FOIA denial letters for five years and compile them in a folder available for public viewing. However, the results varied dramatically between agencies. Most agencies, 28 of 34 total, met the deadline to respond within 15 days. But while two responded within two weeks, four did not respond at all until continued reminders, and one—the Homeland Security & Emergency Management Agency—did not respond at all!
The audit found that: "More than half (18 of 34 agencies) searched the entire requested time period, two asked that the requestors narrow the time period, yet a significant number of agencies—about 10—didn't search the entire time period (e.g., provided letters from 2007, but not 2005-06), while others said the records had been lost or destroyed; others said it was an unreasonable request."
To measure how completely the agencies complied with the request, the Coalition compared the number of letters they received from each agency with the number of denial letters cited in the DC Secretary’s annual FOIA report. Here is where it got pretty wacky:
- Only six provided exactly the reported figure
- Ten provided close to (plus/minus 5) the reported figure
- Five agencies gave them significantly more denial letters than reported for that time period
- Others provided significantly fewer (e.g., the Metropolitan Police Department gave them 113 denial letters, but reported 1,024 for the years in question (2008-09)
- One of the most important agencies in DC government—the Office of the Chief Financial Officer— “failed to respond at all for 90+ days, and didn’t provide any records until today, May 20, after a lot of back-and-forth. Today’s production consisted of only two denial letters, both from 2008. (We had agreed to narrow our request to 2008.) There were 24 FOIA denials by CFO in 2008, according to the Secretary’s report."
The Coalition reported one piece of good news: "All but one agency granted the Coalition’s request for a fee waiver in the public interest."
Keep up the great work, Coalition!
-- Ingrid Drake