Under Trump’s first 100 Days, FOIA a little slower while open data takes a hit

Under new administration, huge delays carry over - along with worrisome new trends

Written by Michael Morisy
Edited by JPat Brown

Since President Donald Trump took office, slow Freedom of Information Act processes have become even slower — although it is tough to determine what, if anything, that means.

According to MuckRock data from around the time of the inauguration, the average federal FOIA request took 164 days from initial filing to final response.

Now, almost 100 days into the new administration, things have only gotten worse. The average response time has creeped up to 168 days — a modest 2.5 percent increase in delay, but still a troubling transparency sign with the new administration.

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For some requesters, the only response they have received under Trump has been silence.

“We have not received any documents in response to five FOIA requests we filed on day one of Trump’s presidency, none of which were particularly complex,” wrote Aaron Mackey, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation . “It’s hard to know whether the delay is on par with previous administrations or actually a result of changes since January 20.”

Mackey said that as a result, requesters wanting a timely response are left with filing lawsuits.

Even after reforms, transparency is a grind

Last year, following years of lobbying by open government groups, substantial FOIA improvements were passed and signed into law , which broadens the appeals rights of requesters, allows greater access to historical documents, and places into law the “presumption of openness” that President Barack Obama had put in place with an executive order.

But some agencies always seem to find new tricks.

“The one peculiar thing that we’ve started to see more of are b6/b7 glomar denials -mainly from the DEA ,” wrote Lauren Harper , director of communications for the National Security Archive . “I was at the OGIS brown bag on Tuesday and heard from a few others that they had also started receiving these letters from various DOJ components, which basically state that the agency doesn’t have to search for these records and go straight to appeal.”

You can dig into any agency’s current performance with MuckRock’s real-time profile pages, which also highlight recent releases.

One thing I’ve heard from numerous FOIA offices is that the hiring freeze put in place has left them drastically understaffed — one office indicated that it’s at roughly half its budgeted staff, while another office told a requester that it was down to one person — extending an estimated response time of weeks to become almost a year.

Federal News Radio’s Meredith Somers reported that a number of agencies were struggling to deal with a surge in requests even as staffs remain skeleta l.

Open data in the crosshairs

But beyond what requesters can get via FOIA, there’s also a lot of concern regarding what agencies proactively release. Perhaps the most prominent item on the chopping block: The White House Visitors Log, which the Obama administration generally made public and which the Trump administration claims presents a security and privacy risk.

That’s meant that potentially influential visits from high-profile personalities and lobbyists can go unreported for weeks, months, or possibly forever. The National Security Archive, CREW, and Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University are suing in a big to reopen those records to the public.

But while that is being litigated, other data sources are quickly and quietly being vanished. The threat is so pronounced that the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative has taken to hosting regular Data Rescue events , focusing on preserving previously released information as it is moved and deleted and, in some cases, using FOIA to try to clawback data sets you used to be able to pull up with a Google search .

Those changes are cause for concern, according to Harper.

“In 100 days we saw the Trump administration go back on the Obama practice of releasing visitor logs, which sets a bad transparency benchmark (not to mention continuing to hide his taxes),” she said. “And, perhaps more apt, we’re seeing the DOJ inexplicably defend the Agriculture Department’s decision to take down the USDA animal welfare reports, even though there’s a clear public interest in them, and both FOIA and the FRA state that docs likely to be of public interest should be posted.“

For a process that can take years, Harper said a hundred days things are not conclusive, but already those actions are a good indicator of what could be coming.

What has your FOIA experience been in Trump’s first 100 days? Let us know via email or on Twitter.


Image via Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under CC BY 2.0