HAPPY 50TH BIRTHDAY, FOIA!

Posted on Jul 29, 2016 in Featured, What's New

This month marks the 50th birthday of the enactment of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which gives people the right to access records from the federal government.  Hawaii has a similar law, the Uniform Information Practices Act (UIPA), which was enacted in 1988 to give people the right to access records from the State, Counties, Legislature, Judiciary, and independent agencies, such as the University of Hawaii and Office of Hawaiian Affairs.  In addition to the UIPA, Hawaii enacted its Sunshine Law in 1975, which gives people the right to participate in public meetings.  All of these laws are designed to promote government accountability and transparency.

The state Office of Information Practices was created in 1988 to administer the UIPA and was given the additional responsibility of administering the Sunshine Law in 1998.  Unlike the federal FOIA, administration of Hawaii’s open records and open meetings laws is centralized in one state agency, OIP, which provides uniform rules, legal interpretation, advice, and training.  Disputes between requesters and agencies or boards may be resolved by OIP, or appealed to the courts.  While OIP frequently looks to federal cases for guidance on specific issues, there are significant differences in how record requests are handled under the UIPA versus FOIA.

According to the FOIA website at www.foia.gov, the federal agencies received 713,168 FOIA requests in FY 2015 and have a collective backlog of 102,828 requests.  In FY 2015, 33.43% of requests were released in full, 7.28% denied in full, and 59.29% released in part.  (Note that the summary data on the FOIA website is limited and an analysis of data from 102 federal agency reports must be conducted to summarize additional data for the federal government as a whole.)  Because of federal requesters’ frustration over lengthy delays, withholding of information, fees and inconsistency in responding to FOIA requests, amendments to FOIA were recently passed by Congress, but no new funding was provided to agencies to process their backlogs.

In contrast to the FOIA statistics, OIP’s Report of State Agencies’ Master UIPA Record Request Year-End Log for FY 2015 (posted on OIP’s website at  http://oip.hawaii.gov/uipa-record-request-log-reports/) shows that Hawaii’s state government agencies (including the Legislature, Judiciary, and independent agencies) received 2,188 formal UIPA requests, which excluded an estimated 87,347 routine requests that are technically subject to the UIPA but not included on the UIPA Record Request Log that each agency uses to track requests.  While the number of state UIPA requests is much smaller than the federal FOIA requests, the agencies in Hawaii completed 99% of the requests received, leaving only nine pending at the end of FY 2015.  Of the completed requests for records, 66% were granted in full, 4% were denied in full, 14% were granted in part, and the remainder were withdrawn, abandoned, or could not be responded to.  The average number of work days to complete all requests, including complex requests, was 8.5 days.  Requesters paid nothing in fees or costs for 88.5% of cases completed by state agencies, paid under $5 in 5.7% of cases, and paid more than $5 in 5.6% of cases.

OIP’s Report of County Agencies’ Master UIPA Record Request Year-End Log for FY 2015 shows that the four counties’ agencies received 1,515 formal requests, which excluded an estimated 52,582 routine requests, and that 94% of the requests received in FY 2015 were completed the same year.  When the counties’ results are combined and averaged, 73% of the completed requests were granted in full, 1% were denied in full, and 12% were granted in part.  The average number of work days that all counties took to complete all requests, including complex requests, was 8.8 days.  Requesters paid nothing in fees or costs for 57.7% of cases completed by the county agencies, paid under $5 in 24.7% of case, and paid more than $5 in 17.5% of cases.

Although the UIPA Record Request Log is still relatively new, its results show similarities between the state and counties’ data, and significant differences from the federal government’s FOIA data.  Thus, while federal agencies’ withholding of records and huge backlogs resulting in lengthy response times have led to the recent FOIA amendments, the UIPA Log data appear to show double the rate of disclosure and much faster response times at no cost for most requesters under Hawaii’s open records law.

In closing, OIP celebrates the inspiration provided by FOIA and recognizes the unique advantages of Hawaii’s uniform administration of its open government laws.  OIP also thanks Hawaii’s government agencies who are tracking their record requests with the Log and providing important data showing how the UIPA is working.  And as a final reminder, today is the last workday for all agencies to provide their FY 2016 year-end Logs and Checklists to OIP, so that we can continue to assess agencies’ compliance with the UIPA and promote government accountability and transparency.  Mahalo!