Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) administration is slow and inefficient, and it often takes months or even years for the public to access government records. Backlogs are growing, agencies may end up responding to requests for the same information numerous times resulting in waste and duplication of effort, and a number of agencies are still responding via costly snail mail instead of online processing. But a new multi-agency initiative launched last October envisions a different future. FOIAonline is a one-stop shop for requesters that could dramatically improve FOIA processing across the federal government.
Anyone can use FOIAonline to submit a FOIA request, correspond with FOIA professionals processing the request, track the status of a request, and download the responsive documents once they are released to the requester. FOIAonline is capable of saving the government an estimated $200 million dollars over five years from improved efficiencies, supporting compliance with statutory deadlines, improving customer service, and ultimately enhancing government transparency. But only if it is used by agencies across the government.
The Project On Government Oversight has advocated for the modernization of FOIA through this innovative online portal from its inception. The project is still in its infancy, however. Only six agencies are currently participating: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Commerce, Department of the Treasury, Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), National Archives (which includes the Office of Government Information Services or OGIS), and Federal Labor Relations Authority. To truly be a one-stop shop for Americans requesting information from the government, all major agencies and departments will eventually need to participate.
Testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for Sunshine Week, POGO Director of Public Policy Angela Canterbury voiced support for proposed FOIA reform legislation that would give FOIAonline a boost. Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) gave FOIAonline a vote of support by including language in a recently-released discussion draft bill that requires the Office of Management and Budget to choose a few agencies to join the system as part of a FOIAonline pilot program.
The chosen agencies would report back to Congress, evaluating the benefits of FOIAonline to process requests and release information. The report would review any cost savings, resource savings, or efficiency gained through FOIAonline, any change in the amount of requests received, any increase in transparency and accessibility to government information, and any changes in the ability to access and compile information needed for agency annual reports. Hopefully this bipartisan bill will help encourage agencies to join FOIAonline, and give us a better understanding of what additional improvements must be made to the system.
According to a Bloomberg article, two EPA employees who designed FOIAonline won an award this week from the Sunshine in Government Initiative, but the agency is not allowing the designers to accept the honor in person. In her testimony, Canterbury gave kudos to the agencies that spearheaded the effort, stating, it is “extremely important to credit the extraordinary initiative and voluntary investments made by the three agencies that created FOIAOnline: OGIS, the Department of Commerce, and the Environmental Protection Agency.” Although technological advances that enhance government openness are often met with resistance, we hope the Administration will take a stronger stance promoting the FOIA portal going forward.
Assistant Director of OpenTheGovernment.org Amy Bennett recently gave a presentation on her experiences thus far using FOIAonline during a panel held by the Collaboration on Government Secrecy at the Washington College of Law. She concluded that FOIAonline is making it easier for individuals to file FOIA requests, but the portal is not yet living up to its potential to make FOIA’d information more accessible to the general public.
Bennett is managing a project that compares the experience of requesting government records through FOIAonline (to EPA, MSPB, and Commerce) with making FOIA requests to 14 other agencies using their individual online submission forms or via email. A requester does not have to fill out basic information to make a request once he or she sets up an account with FOIAonline, and can attach supporting documents. As a result, Bennett found the interface is easy to use, and she gave FOIAonline an A+ for making requests. The web portal also got high marks for confirming receipt of the request and automatically generating a tracking number.
Participating agencies can make all records released under the FOIA publicly available through FOIAonline, and we believe public disclosure should be the rule not the exception. For the portal to bring FOIA into the 21st century, FOIAonline participants should choose to make released information available in the central searchable database. This would be a real game-changer for sunshine in government.
POGO and our partners at OpenTheGovernment.org will continue to monitor how well FOIAonline is creating a new level of openness and transparency in government. Hopefully the number of participating agencies and departments will expand in coming months. Ultimately, government agencies, the Obama Administration, and the public all have an interest in ensuring that FOIAonline lives up to its potential.