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‘Sunshine week’ reports show transparency complaints still dog Obama administration

Independent watchdog reviews show that the Obama administration is still struggling in its fifth year to develop the most transparent government in U.S. history, a pledge President Obama made on his first day in office.

The Center for Effective Government handed out failing grades to seven of the 15 agencies it examined for its annual government transparency report card, which the group released Monday.

The State Department performed worst, finishing with a score of 37 percent. The Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon followed with grades of 51 percent. The top performers included the Social Security Administration (83 percent), the Justice Department (81 percent) and the Environmental Protection Agency (78 percent).

The scores measured performance in processing requests, establishing rules for answering the requests and creating easy-to-use Web sites.

“There are agencies out there doing great with processing, so all of this is possible,” said Sean Moulton, a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) expert with the Center for Effective Government. “The real problem is getting agencies to be consistent and learn from each other about how to do a better job.”

An Associated Press analysis of federal data found that the Obama administration got more secretive last year, censoring or denying FOIA access to government files more than at any time in the president’s tenure.

The administration has also cited more legal exceptions to justify withholding materials and refused to turn over more files quickly when they are considered newsworthy, and most agencies took longer to answer records requests, according to the AP study.

On a positive note, the analysis showed that the administration reduced the number of old requests and waived copying fees more often last year.

A third analysis from the National Security Archive at George Washington University found that 54 percent of all federal agencies have ignored directives from Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in 2009 calling for a “presumption of disclosure” with FOIA requests. That number is down from about 70 percent last year.

That report also said that nearly half of all agencies have not updated their FOIA regulations to reflect 2007 amendments that Congress made to the law. The changes required agencies to report specific data on FOIA output and cooperate with a new FOIA ombudsman in the Office of Government Information Services, among other provisions.

The release of the reviews coincided with Sunshine Week, when transparency advocates promote open government and issue reports gauging how well federal agencies have complied with FOIA rules.

The White House has proposed a plan that could help the administration improve its marks by creating one core FOIA regulation and a common set of practices for following the guidelines.

“That could be a huge win for everybody,” Moulton said, but adding, “Until we know the change is going to happen, agencies need to move forward with updating their own regulations.”

The House last month passed a bipartisan bill that would require agencies to update their regulations within 180 days.

The administration has struggled with Obama’s transparency pledge amid growing requests and budget constraints. Melanie Pustay, head of the Justice Department division that oversees FOIA, told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that federal agencies dealt with a record 700,000 requests last year. The administration has increased its processing numbers every year since 2010, with the amount rising about 13 percent in that time.

“The primary reasons that agencies give for having backlogs are the increases in the number of requests coming in,” Pustay said. “The second thing that’s been happening is that the requests are more complex than they were before.”

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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