Freedom of Information Act: Actions Needed to Improve Agency Compliance with Proactive Disclosure Requirements

What GAO Found

The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 expanded the requirement for agencies to proactively disclose certain records—making the records publicly available without waiting for specific requests. Of the three agencies GAO reviewed—Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Veterans Health Administration (VHA)—only VHA aligned its policies and procedures with applicable Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) proactive disclosure requirements. Although FAA officials stated that the agency has processes to identify and post proactive disclosures, it has not documented these processes. HUD has FOIA regulations, updated in 2017, that address proactive disclosure, but its standard operating procedures have outdated sections that do not reflect statutory requirements.

GAO also found that HUD, VHA, and FAA did not fully comply with the statutory reporting requirements and Department of Justice’s (DOJ) guidance to accurately report proactive disclosures. The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 requires agencies to report the number of records the FOIA and program offices proactively disclosed each fiscal year. From fiscal years 2017 through 2019, HUD incorrectly reported zero proactive disclosures, while VHA and FAA did not track and report all required categories of proactive disclosures in fiscal year 2019 (see table).

Selected Agencies’ Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Offices’ Reported Proactive Disclosures

Fiscal year

Federal Aviation Administration

Housing and Urban Development

Veterans Health Administration

2019

8

0

16

2018

89,687

0

0

2017

90,486

0

58

2016

68,046

12

0

Source: FOIA.gov. | GAO-21-254

DOJ’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) is responsible for encouraging agencies’ compliance with FOIA, including overseeing the Annual FOIA Report that agencies submit to OIP. OIP told GAO that it asked agencies that report zero proactive disclosures to confirm that this was accurate, but it did not follow up with these agencies. For example, OIP asked HUD officials to confirm that HUD intentionally reported zero proactive disclosures, but did not ask why HUD had zero proactive disclosures. In addition, GAO’s review of annual FOIA data found that 25 of 118 agencies reported zero proactive disclosures in fiscal years 2018 and 2019. OIP said that agencies with a low volume of requests may have fewer records to proactively disclose. However, by not following up with agencies that report zero proactive disclosures, OIP is not using an available tool that may strengthen its efforts to encourage agencies to make required disclosures.

OIP and National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)’s Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) officials stated that making proactive disclosures accessible is a challenge for agencies. To assist agencies in addressing such challenges, OGIS periodically reviews agencies’ compliance with FOIA and recently issued a report that included strategies for making proactive disclosures accessible.

Why GAO Did This Study

FOIA, enacted into law more than 50 years ago, requires federal agencies to provide the public with access to government records and information, including through proactive disclosures. FOIA proactive disclosures enhance transparency by ensuring that certain information about the operations and activities of the government is publicly available.

GAO was asked to review federal agencies’ efforts to implement FOIA requirements regarding proactive disclosures. This report assesses the extent to which selected agencies (1) aligned their policies and procedures with FOIA requirements, and (2) tracked and reported these disclosures. GAO also assessed the effectiveness of the tools, resources, and oversight provided by DOJ and NARA to address known challenges to agencies’ FOIA compliance.

GAO selected three agencies—FAA, HUD, and VHA—that reflect, among other things, a range in the agency-reported number of FOIA requests received and records proactively disclosed. GAO reviewed DOJ, NARA, FAA, HUD, and VHA documents and interviewed agency officials.

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    The CARES Act authorized up to $46 billion for the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) to make loans to aviation and other eligible businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the 267 applications submitted to the loan program, 35 loans providing $21.9 billion in assistance were executed. Treasury officials do not expect to make any additional loans before Treasury's authority to make loans expires. Applications and Loans for CARES Act Loan Program for Aviation and Other Eligible Businesses, by Category in Statute Type of business Number of applications submitted Assistance sought/available (billions of dollars) Number of loans executed Assistance provided (billions of dollars) Passenger air carrier, repair station operator, and ticket agent 183 35 / 25 23 21.2 Cargo air carrier 10 0.8 / 4 1 0.002 National security business 74 2.6 / 17 11 0.7 Total 267 38.3 / 46 35 21.9 Source: GAO analysis of Department of the Treasury data | GAO-21-198 Note: Pub. L. No. 116-136, § 4003(b)(1)-(3). Participation in the loan program varied across business types due to timing of decisions and other factors, according to stakeholders. Treasury prioritized applications from the largest passenger air carriers and executed loans with seven of them for nearly $20.8 billion. For other applicants, including smaller passenger air carriers and ticket agents, the amount of time Treasury took to evaluate their applications and other challenges affected the number of loans executed, according to selected industry associations. Treasury's authority to make new loans under this program is set to expire in December 2020, and the loan program offers Congress and Treasury lessons for designing and implementing programs of this type in the future. For example: Multiple programs, or multiple paths within a program, may better accommodate businesses of varied types and sizes. It is difficult to implement a program quickly for a wide range of businesses. In addition, a loan program well suited to large, financially sophisticated applicants will not likely be well suited to smaller businesses. Setting and communicating clear program goals could better align lender and borrower expectations. Treasury viewed itself as a lender of last resort but did not state this view in published documents. This omission led to some applicants being surprised by parts of the process, such as when Treasury encouraged over a third of all applicants to apply to another loan program before continuing to pursue a loan from Treasury. Communicating clear timelines for action can also help align lender and borrower expectations. The lack of a published timeline resulted in frustration among some applicants when loans were not made more quickly. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in catastrophic loss of life and substantial damage to the global economy, including the aviation sector. U.S. passenger air carriers have lost almost $20 billion and over 47,000 jobs in 2020, with losses forecast to continue into 2021. In March 2020, Congress passed, and the President signed into law, the CARES Act, which provides over $2 trillion in emergency assistance and health care response for individuals, families, and businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, including businesses in the aviation sector. The CARES Act contained a provision for GAO to review the loans provided under the Act. This report examines, among other things, eligible businesses' participation in the loan program and lessons learned from the program for Congress and Treasury. GAO reviewed Treasury documents and data on applications received and loans executed; interviewed Treasury officials on the design and implementation of the program; and interviewed eight industry associations that represent the range of businesses eligible for loans, eight passenger air carriers, and other selected applicants to gather their views on the program. GAO will continue to monitor and report on CARES Act assistance to the aviation industry. This oversight includes the loan program and another Treasury program—the Payroll Support Program—that provided assistance to certain aviation businesses to continue paying employee wages, salaries, and benefits. For more information, contact Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or krauseh@gao.gov.
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