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How Freedom of Information Act Requests Are Managed

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While some researchers have looked at individual agency responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, Khaldoun AbouAssi, assistant professor in the AU School of Public Affairs, co-conducted an aggregate analysis of FOIA that reveals trends in how public administrators are managing compliance with the federal law. FOIA allows for the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents that the U.S. government controls.

The study, “A Snapshot of FOIA Administration: Examining Recent Research Trends to Inform Future Research,” which was coauthored by AbouAssi and Tina Nabatchi, associate professor in the Department of Public Administration and International Affairs at Syracuse University, appeared in the American Review of Public Administration in May.

In their article, AbouAssi and Nabatchi chronicle the steady growth in new FOIA requests and appeals between 2008 and 2016, and the challenges public administrators face in acting on requests. They used data gathered from to provide a glimpse at the processing and management of requests.

Key findings include the following:

  • In 2008, 560,880 FOIA requests were submitted to federal agencies, with that number increasing to 789,075 by 2016.
  • In 2008, there was one employee for every 174 FOIA cases. As of 2016, there was one employee for every 188 FOIA cases.
  • The Department of Homeland Security consistently ranks as the top agency receiving and handling requests (40 percent of the total FOIA requests in 2015 and 2016).
  • The total cost of fulfilling FOIA requests in 2016 was about $530 million annually.

The article shows a sharp decrease in fully granted FOIA requests and a sharp increase in partially granted requests in the time period studied. The data suggest the majority of reasons for the denials fall outside agency control, such as improper requests. However, according to the study, agencies can develop their own policies in accordance with the Act, and those inconsistencies may cause confusion for requesters and may restrict access to information. Although some administrators might believe FOIA detracts from and drains resources, it is a requirement to comply.

“FOIA is not the core mission of any particular agency, but it is becoming so,” said AbouAssi. “The agency has to act on that request. If that’s the case, we need to change the mentality in federal agencies about what FOIA is and make the public more aware.”

By shedding light on trends in FOIA, Nabatchi and AbouAssi hope to generate more interest in research on intra-agency FOIA management and comparisons across various U.S. presidential administrations. They suggest that simple additions made to data on FOIA requests, such as categorizing who is seeking the information (journalists, lobbyists, or the general public) would result in a greater understanding of the value of the law in the democratic process.

“The 50th anniversary of FOIA was in 2016,” said Nabatchi. “It’s crazy that after 50 years we can only look at these trends in an eight-year period. That suggests there is a lot more work out there to do to really understand FOIA as an administrative tool and as a tool of inquiry for the public.”