Can an agency get credit if it reduces backlogs?

This may sound like asking whether a tree falling in a forest with no one around makes any noise at all, but bear with me here:  If an agency improves their backlog of FOIA requests — actually makes a dent in it — would anyone know?

Maybe not.

Here’s what we wrote in our recent analysis of the annual FOIA reports:

– Some agencies dropped backlogs, while others couldn’t keep up. There were fewer pending requests, but the United States Customs and Inspection Service (USCIS is part of DHS) accounts for much of the gains. Overall, the agencies in our primary comparison group cut the combined backlog rate in half, and the actual number of requests backlogged by 47 percent, but that was mostly on the shoulders of Homeland Security with cut its backlog from 77% to 17%, or 56,560 requests. Of this drop, the USCIS accounted for much of those reductions. Twelve of the 29 actually saw increases in their pending requests.

via Sunshine in Government Initiative.

Were we burying the lede?  Homeland Security, the agency that barely turned in a FOIA Improvement Plan required under the previous administration’s executive order and had trouble returning phone calls, had made what appeared on paper to be astounding progressing in reducing backlogs.

So much for the notion that backlogs and delays are inevitable with big government, to paraphrase Mark Tapscott.  But was the reduction real?  or a result of a change in the way agencies count the numbers?  What accounted for the big number changes?

The DHS Chief FOIA Officer’s report, available along with several other analyses and reports from DHS, its inspector general and others about the DHS FOIA program on the agency’s website, tells a story backed up by government employees who are familiar with the DHS FOIA program.

First, the reductions are real.  Managers hold biweekly conference calls between DHS components to review their FOIA progress, discuss best practices and review progress on meeting their processing targets.   They set a goal of reducing their backlog by 15 percent.  They devoted personnel to reducing the backlogs, and made better use of existing technology to respond to requests faster.  Simple steps, such as providing responsive documents in electronic form rather than expending the extra time to print lengthy documents, save agencies time and allow them to get to more requests in the same time.

But you’d never know this from the FOIA annual report. While DHS is reporting their backlogs, there’s no forum for DHS to explain not just what their goals and objectives are, but what strategies they used to accomplish the results.

So, if an agency pushes with management leadership focusing on reducing backlogs while keeping up with incoming requests, making better decisions, or making other real improvements, would the agency get credit in the broader access community, or the public? Would reporters notice?

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