A Sunshine Week spotlight on MuckRock’s data

Data pulled from over 30,000 FOIA requests shows an average response time of just over 70 days, with huge differences between federal and state/local levels

Written by Michael Morisy
Edited by JPat Brown

One of the questions we get asked the most about the FOIA and public records process is how long you should expect to wait. While every agency and jurisdiction page on MuckRock has that average, we decided to dig a little deeper into our deeper into our data, and also make it accessible for everyone else.

First, thanks to our API, I was able to download and clean up data on average agency response times. This data is pulled from MuckRock’s database of over 30,000 requests filed across over 6,000 agencies at the state, local, and federal levels.

And despite FOIA’s reputation for being an eternity of waiting, our numbers indicate that while there are delays, most agencies are good at getting you a response within a month or so. Here’s the number of agencies with a given response time across all agencies that MuckRock users have filed at least one request with:

Number of Agencies with A Given Average Response Time

The median average response time from agencies was 31 days: Not great, generally not following relevant state or federal law, but not as bad I thought it would be.

Some mixed news is that the average success rate of requests was just 43 percent.

The mean of the average response times, however, stretches to just over 70 days, dragged out by some agencies that truly lag in responding to requests. But as you can see in the timeline below, separating out federal and non-federal responses shows two very different pictures:

Number of Federal Agencies With Given Average Response Time

Number of State and Local Agencies with Given Average Response Time

In general, federal agencies move much, much more slower in responding.

There’s also some interesting information buried in our jurisdiction data. For one thing, as best we can tell, we have every single city, town, county, and other U.S. state political jurisdiction in our database (we’re still working on inclusion of all territories and their respective political jurisdictions).

There’s 33,610 total jurisdictions in our database, but MuckRock users have filed requests in only 916 of them, or just under 3 percent. We’ve still got a lot of places left to FOIA!

If you get the mean average of state and federal jurisdiction average response times, they’re incredibly close: The average of state average response times is 48.7 days after a request is initially filed, while the average of local average response times is 49.5 days.

Want to do some FOIA analysis of your own?

Download the data I used as a CSV file:

Or pull custom data yourself with our API. Keep in mind that there’s some caveats with the data. The biggest: It’s based only on requests filed through MuckRock. Also, we calculate dates based on when the request is submitted, and responses based on when the response is sent (instantly for email, postmark date for mailed responses).

And if you have other ideas for how this data can be useful, let us know at info@muckrock.com. We love collaborations, like how FOIA.wiki pulls our data live to populate its agency landing pages.


Image via NIH Flickr