A new report shows a dramatic increase in the federal government's backlog of unanswered Freedom of Information Act requests — and blames it in part on a shrinking federal workforce.
Amid record demand last year for information from federal agencies, the Justice Department's Office of Information Policy found, the backlog grew by 67 percent.
At the same time, the number of workers processing those requests declined by 8.9 percent, to the lowest level in the six years the office has reporting on FOIA requests.
The surge comes as federal departments are inundated with requests related to security and secrecy — with requests for the emails of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton among the highest-profile examples.
Just six federal agencies account for 92 percent of the backlog: the departments of Homeland Security, State, Justice, Defense and Health and Human Services and the National Archives and Research Administration.
More than half of the outstanding requests were made to Homeland Security.
The office concluded that the backlog was due primarily to "many challenges during this past fiscal year including less staffing, tight fiscal times, and a three week government shutdown during which requests continued to come in when there was no staff available to process them."
Melanie Ann Pustay, director of the office that wrote the study, told a Senate committee last week that the backlog wouldn't have increased by as much had it not been for the partial government shutdown in October 2013.
"We roughly estimate that this three-week period could have resulted in over 32,000 more FOIA requests being processed," Pustay told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Requests increased by 10,000 from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2014. At the same time, federal workers processed 31,000 fewer requests.
Pustay was not available for an interview late last week. But during Sunshine Week in March, a period intended to promote government transparency, she told Federal News Radio that budget cuts at many agencies weakened their ability to respond to public information requests.
"As much as we've been trying to focus on using technology to help with FOIA, at the end of the day you need people to review records for disclosability," she said. "So loss of staff has a big impact."
At the close of fiscal year 2014 last Sept. 30, her office found, 159,741 requests for information were still outstanding. At the end of the same year, there were 558 fewer workers available able to process them.
"It's ridiculous," Sirine Shebaya, an immigration attorney with the ACLU of Maryland.
Shebaya regularly files FOIA requests, both for routine information about people facing deportation and more complicated requests about immigration policies.
The government is supposed to respond to requests within 20 days. But Shebaya said she normally waits much longer for information from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, one of the agencies she routinely queries.
In April 2013, she says, she requested data about how Immigration and Customs Enforcement asked local law enforcement to detain people on immigration issues. She hoped to use the information to lobby the legislature the following January, she says, but didn't receive a response until April 2014 — after the General Assembly adjourned.
"I had filed it a year in advance so that I would make sure that we would have it in time," she said. "And then we didn't."
Pustay said requests have grown in complexity.
In his 2009 "Open Government Directive," President Barack Obama called for the release of more information online. He also called for each agency to resolve the 10 oldest requests every year. This year, the National Archives completed requests that dated back to 1993.
The Justice Department's Office of Information Policy, meanwhile, has been urging agencies to pre-emptively release certain types of frequently requested data.
As a result, Pustay, the proportion of simple requests has declined, leaving agencies with more complicated requests.
The sluggish response has prompted scores of lawsuits.
The State Department faces nearly 80 lawsuits related just to Clinton's emails.
Immigration attorneys filed a class action lawsuit against U.S. Customs and Border Protection alleging the agency broke federal laws and stymied immigration relief by not responding to requests within 20 days.
Pustay's office noted that of the 100 federal agencies surveyed, 29 percent had no backlog at all.