Freedom of Information Act Portal Would Boost Responsiveness, Improve Efficiency

An interagency project underway could revolutionize implementation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and significantly improve transparency and efficiency. The project to develop a government-wide portal for FOIA requests, a goal long supported by the open government community, could deliver as soon as this fall.

Background

Under FOIA, federal agencies respond to public requests for their records. Each agency requires different procedures for submitting a request and tracking its progress, which can be confusing to members of the public. Innovative technologies, already in use at some agencies, could increase proactive disclosure, improve responsiveness, and reduce backlogs. But not all agencies have taken advantage of these opportunities. Many agencies do not have web forms to submit requests, automatic tracking of request status, electronic communication with requestors, or proactive disclosure of request logs or the documents released.

To improve the situation, OMB Watch and other open government groups recommendedin 2008 that the government invest in better technology for FOIA, including a centralized system where the public could file FOIA requests with every agency. An OMB Watch assessment in March 2011 showed that, while there had been no progress toward a centralized system, agencies had made some progress in using technology to streamline their FOIA systems. For instance, the Treasury Department launched anonline request form in April 2011. However, most agencies have implemented only a few of these modern practices or none at all, despite being recommended as best practice by the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), the government’s FOIA ombudsman.

The Project

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken the lead on the development of a multi-agency FOIA system that would include the best practices from across the government. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Commerce Department formed a partnership with EPA in September 2011 to work on the project. They expect the portal to launch in October 2012. Details on the project were presented to the public at a December 2011 conference and in a Jan. 9 OGIS blog post.

The portal would provide a single interface through which the public could submit requests to any participating agency, eliminating the need to find the contact information for multiple agencies. The system would automatically assign tracking numbers to requests, which the requester could use to automatically view the status of the request, obviating the need to wait for manual replies from agencies. Agencies could also generate e-mails to requesters through the system to seek clarifying information or send invoices for fees, reducing mail delays and postage costs.

When an agency identifies records responsive to a request, it could add them to the system. Consultations and referrals to other agencies could occur within the system, reducing the need to send documents around. Because the current consultation and referral process is a frequent source of delays and dead-ends for FOIA requests, improvements in timeliness here would be very welcome.

Released documents would be uploaded to a public website, and the requester would be notified of their availability. This critical feature would improve transparency by making released documents fully available to the general public, rather than delivered only to the requester.

The system would also allow requesters to submit appeals electronically. Withheld documents would remain in the system without public access but would be quickly available for agency review in the event of an appeal.

The project partners estimate the cost to build the system at about $1.3 million dollars, with annual operating costs of $500,000 to $750,000. The project will keep costs down by leveraging the existing infrastructure of Regulations.gov, in which all agencies already participate. With full participation across the government, the agencies estimate the FOIA system would save a whopping $200 million over five years from improved efficiencies. Although the project partners have not released the assumptions and calculations behind their cost estimates, the likelihood of considerable cost savings, as well as significant benefits to government transparency, make the project a worthwhile investment.

The project is being developed under a fee-for-service model, in which participating agencies would contribute from their budgets to fund the portal’s costs. The partners are exploring expanding the project to include other agencies.

Concerns

Although the benefits are likely to be considerable, agencies may hesitate to join the project without a clear directive from Congress or the Obama administration. In a time of budget contraction, the fee-for-service model may give pause to some agencies, despite the fact that the expected costs would likely be only a fraction of what agencies currently pay to respond to FOIA requests on their own. Agencies may not want to abandon their current FOIA processing systems because of attendant “switching costs” like training staff to use a new system or even contractual obligations to current vendors supplying the agency’s FOIA system. It would be unfortunate if these concerns blocked broader adoption of the new system, because the portal will be markedly less useful to the public if only a few agencies participate.

Importantly, the portal must maintain high standards of usability for the public. If the system is difficult to use or unreliable, then the public could be deterred from using it. Open government advocates have criticized Regulations.gov, whose infrastructure will underpin the FOIA system, as being confusing and user-unfriendly. It remains to be seen if the FOIA portal can do better. But even if the initial release is clunky, agencies could iterate the system to improve usability once the infrastructure is in place.

Recommendations

Agencies, the administration, and Congress should support this important effort to improve transparency and efficiency. Additional agencies should join the project as soon as possible. The administration should speed this process by directing agencies to utilize the multi-agency portal, as the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) did in 2004 in a memo directing agencies to use Regulations.gov. Congress should also ensure that agency budgets can support any up-front costs for this innovative project that should result in significant savings in the future.

 

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