FOIA DC AUDIT

DC gov flunks FOIA audit

Friday, May 21st, 2010 

Despite having highly functional and generally information-filled websites, the District’s administrative agencies, boards and commissions earn a failing grade when it comes to posting public records required by the city’s Freedom of Information Act.

A just completed audit shows agencies broadly ignore a 2001 law that requires them to post 10 categories of public records on their websites.  

The survey was conducted by the D.C. Open Government Coalition in conjunction with the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. Two Howard University students, Melissa Noel and LeeSandra Alexandre, interning at the Workshop, did the research.

Web FOIA Results By Agency

Web FOIA Results By Category

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They reviewed 54 agency and commission websites looking for examples of required record postings in eight of the mandatory public records categories. They also checked to see if the agencies provided citizens with information on filing FOIA requests to obtain other records.

The key findings:

•  The 54 agencies failed to post information in the required public records categories 53 percent of the time.

•  Eight offered citizens no help in seeking records under FOIA. Two others provided  FOIA request information — but at a website location found only after diligent search.

• Only one agency went to the trouble of providing website users with an index to the materials that the law says must be posted. The other 53 ignored the provision in the law saying they must provide an index.

• And only one agency met the requirement to provide employee salary information.

•  Only 14 posted any records that might fit within the mandate to make public online information on accounts, vouchers and contracts involving the receipt or spending of money.

Audit details

The District of Columbia’s Freedom of Information Act provides that each city agency with a website make available, on that site, all records that fall within 10 categories of information, if the records were created on or after Nov. 1, 2001.  

We also reviewed websites for one additional element: Does the agency help citizens seeking information by displaying prominently on its website guidance on how to file a FOIA request for records?

The findings are based on an initial review from October to December of 2009, with subsequent spot checks for site updates. This report focuses on eight of the 10 categories of information that the law requires agencies post online. These eight are applicable to virtually every agency reviewed. The two categories not included in this audit relate to the recording of real-estate transactions and building permits, areas that do not involve most agencies.

The researchers, Howard University students working with the Workshop, were, like many citizens seeking information, first-time users of D.C. agency sites. The common web page design used by a majority of the agencies made navigating the sites an easier task, but placement of the mandated information was often inconsistent. At times, it appeared the records were deliberately hard to find.

For example, Minutes of Proceedings is located under About OPC on the Office of Police Complaints website but under the Information section on the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration site.

Several agencies link to some of the FOIA-mandated information through an independent agency; for instance, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education links to the State Board of Education.

Some agencies force users to locate FOIA-mandated documents via a search engine. One example: the Office of Zoning, which provides a significant number of  FOIA-mandated documents through its search engine but does not provide appropriate “key words” or an index to help find the FOIA materials. As a result, it’s possible that FOIA-mandated information that resides on the agency’s site was simply not found in this review.

With few exceptions, the District's agency websites do not lack for information. But it is often not clear which, if any, of the materials posted specifically fall under the umbrella of the E-FOIA mandate. And only one agency provided an index to the required records – even though the law mandates that they do so.

This audit is descriptive. It reports what was found that specifically or generally conforms to the law and its intent that citizens have online access to certain kinds of information about their government. It also notes obvious non-compliance, such as the lack of an index. But it was not possible, within the constraints of the review, to determine whether an agency had posted all of the records within its files that might come under the law’s mandate.  

The review showed wide disparities in compliance with the electronic records posting requirements from topic to topic, but overall, the agencies failed to post any relevant information more than half the time.

Other than the failure to provide an index of mandatory postings, the most telling – or perhaps non-telling – failure was the lack of information on employees. The law says that each agency must post on its website “the names, salaries, title, and dates of employment of all employees and officers.” Some named only the agency director, or the top officials. A single agency posted dates of employment and salary ranges.

The Department of Human Resources does provide an Employee Compensation page that lists citywide Salary Schedules, which show the pay ranges for each employee grade. However, there is nothing to show the actual compensation of any particular employee or official. And the various agency sites do not link citizens to the Human Resources site so they can find even that.

In some instances, agency sites linked viewers to the online D.C. Municipal Regulations and D.C. Register, www.dcregs.org, to provide information that fell into one or more the mandated-categories. That site is provided by the Secretary of the District of Columbia and the Office of Documents and Administrative Issuances. It includes rulings, Mayor’s orders and documents of some agencies.

The FOIA law identifies 10 categories of records as public information that do not require a written FOIA request. Rather, the law provides that the information be posted on the agency website:

(1) The names, salaries, title, and dates of employment of all employees and officers of a public body;

(2) Administrative staff manuals and instructions to staff that affect a member of the public;

(3) Final opinions, including concurring and dissenting opinions, as well as orders, made in the adjudication of cases;

(4) Those statements of policy and interpretations of policy, acts and rules that have been adopted by a public body;

(5) Correspondence and materials referred to therein, by and with a public body, relating to any regulatory, supervisory, or enforcement responsibilities of the public body, whereby the public body determines, or states an opinion upon, or is asked to determine or state an opinion upon, the rights of the District, the public, or any private party;

(6) Information in or taken from any account, voucher, or contract dealing with the receipt or expenditure of public or other funds by public bodies;

(6A) Budget requests, submissions and reports available electronically that agencies, boards and commissions transmit to the Office of the Budget and Planning during the budget development process, as well as reports on budget implementation and execution prepared by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, including baseline budget submissions and appeals, financial status reports, and strategic plans and performance-based budget submissions;

(7) The minutes of all proceedings of all public bodies;

(8) All names and mailing addresses of absentee real property owners and their agents;   (Not included in this audit.)

(8A) All pending applications for building permits and authorized building permits, including the permit file; (Not included in this audit.)

(9) Copies of all records, regardless of form or format, which have been released to any person under this chapter and which, because of the nature of their subject matter, the public body determines have become or are likely to become the subject of subsequent requests for substantially the same records; and

(10) A general index of the records required to be posted, unless the materials are promptly published and copies offered for sale.

Here, in tabular form, is what we found in searching the websites of 54 agencies for records in those categories and to determine if they provided FOIA request information:

 

 

 

Information
Found
Some Data Found
Nothing
Found
Not
Applicable
Other
FOIA Request Data
44
 
8
 
2
Staff, Salary Data
1
18
23
 
13
Manuals, Staff Instructions
13
10
28
 
3
Ruies and Policies
30
10
10
4
 
Opinions, Orders
17
 
9
21
7
Regulatory, Enforcement Correspondence
20
17
12
5
 
Contract, Account Data
7
7
40
 
 
Meeting Minutes
11
7
24
12
 
Frequent FOIA Requests
11
3
40
 
 
Index of FOIA Act Items
1
 
53
 
 



    


 

This audit is a joint project of the D.C. Open Government Coalition and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. Primary research was done by LeeSandra Alexandre and Melissa Noel, Howard University journalism students interning at the Workshop. The project was edited by Pete Weitzel, a former managing editor of the Miami Herald, where he worked as a reporter and editor for nearly 40 years. He helped found the Florida First Amendment Foundation, serving as its president from 1985 to 1995, and also helped launch the National Freedom of Information Coalition and served as its second president. He remains on the board of the Florida foundation.