Report Says Customs And Border Protection Shoved 12,000 Unanswered FOIA Requests Into Boxes And Forgot About Them
from the your-tax-dollars-hardly-working dept
The Government Accountability Office has taken a look at the DHS and its handling of FOIA requests, and it doesn't like what it sees. There are plenty of numbers in the report but the most incredible number is this: 23,000 FOIA requests mishandled by a single agency under the DHS's control. [pdf link]
Nonetheless, CBP experienced a large increase in the number of its backlogged requests from fiscal year 2011 through fiscal year 2013—from 4,356 requests to 37,848 requests. According to CBP officials, two problems, in particular, contributed to the higher numbers. First, approximately 11,000 FOIA cases that were improperly closed in 2012 had to be reopened and reprocessed. Second, after its reorganization, a new manager found a stack of boxes containing 12,000 paper requests from 2012 that had never been entered into their processing system. The officials stated that CBP subsequently cleared all of these requests.Unfortunately, the report doesn't contain any further details on how these events occurred. The preceding paragraph notes that the CBP has taken steps (hiring/training additional staff, extending agreement with USCIS to handle FOIA processing) to tackle its backlog of requests, but there's nothing explaining how 11,000 requests were "improperly closed" or how 12,000 requests managed to bypass the FOIA system completely, only to reappear in a stack of boxes located elsewhere.
Part of the problem seems to be the DHS itself. The agency is supposed to be fixing its lousy FOIA response system, which includes every agency under its oversight. But the DHS is too big to do the job properly. When it was formed in 2003, the DHS assumed control of 22 agencies and offices as well as absorbed 209,000 federal employees. By 2014, this had grown to 28 agencies and offices.
The GAO pointed out serious flaws in the agency's FOIA processes since 2008, along with handing down several recommendations. Most of that has been ignored or implemented badly. (Pretty much par for the course for an agency another GAO report bluntly stated "had no project management skills.") For the most part, the "solution" has been to throw warm bodies at the request backlog. In a better system, this might have worked. But the DHS's underling agencies seem to all have different ideas as to what tracking and response system works best, resulting in a snarled "network" of responders that creates more problems than it solves.
Responsibility for processing FOIA requests is decentralized among DHS’s Privacy Office and component agencies...In addition, each of the selected components has its own program and procedures for processing, tracking, and reporting FOIA activities... Further, while the selected components report their FOIA processing costs to the Privacy Office, which then aggregates this data, these reported costs are incomplete, thus hindering accountability for the total costs incurred by the department and the components in managing and processing FOIA requests. Also, duplication exists in the processing of certain requests for immigrant files that are handled by two of the selected components.This table highlights part of the problem:
Only half of the six agencies are using the same system. ICE is using FileMaker Pro in addition to using FOIAXpress, partially nullifying the interconnectedness of the system it shares with two other agencies. The Coast Guard is using nothing more than off-the-shelf Excel to handle its FOIA requests.
Because of the disparate methods and lack of interagency connectivity, the GAO notes that it is unable to provide a completely accurate picture of the DHS's FOIA processes, both in terms of backlogs and costs incurred.
Due to the non-reporting of particular cost categories and concerns about the accuracy of certain reported cost data, including data with obvious errors and inconsistent accounts of how data were collected, we concluded that, overall, the cost data provided were not sufficiently reliable, based on federal management cost accounting standards, to determine DHS’s total FOIA costs, but that our analysis allowed us to conclude that overall costs were underreported...When it's all said and done, the DHS accounts for nearly half of the government's 95,000-request backlog. Part of it is due to its size, which encompasses some agencies (CBP, ICE) many Americans are seeking more and more information from. But the rest of it is on the DHS itself, which has been informed of its deficiencies since 2008, but has made very little forward progress.
In examining reported data on the volumes of FOIA requests made to DHS, we found two data reliability issues of concern. First, we found that a FOIA request may be recorded and counted more than once… Similarly, a request sent to more than one component may be entered separately by each component that responds. Nonetheless, while this double counting may result in an inaccurate number of total requests received by DHS, it did not affect our findings, since we have no findings related to the overall volume of requests handled by DHS.