#FOIAsurvey update re: FOIAonline

Our efforts to survey federal agencies (@sgichris, #FOIAsurvey) about FOIAonline are starting to bear fruit. We have put out feelers to most of the forty agencies and departments responsible for over 99% of FOIA requests each year, and we can identify some trends:

  • There is definitely more interest. We had expected as much, since the FOIAonline portal offers distinct benefits for individual agencies and requesters, as well as members of each group in the aggregate, but it’s nice to have this recognized by additional agency FOIA personnel.
  • There are plenty of existing contracts. Which is how things should be; we’re glad agencies have invested in their FOIA-processing systems. We’d just like to see agencies consider FOIAonline as an option when the opportunity arises.
  • There is a lot of voicemail. Given the chronic laments of both FOIA requesters and agency staff, that a lack of resources prevents agencies from responding to FOIA requests and related questions as quickly as they’d like to, this is not a surprise. (We hope the people whose numbers we called were busy helping other callers at the time.)
  • There is some confusion. We did have one agency respond that FOIAonline is for agencies which don’t have an electronic processing system. To which we’d say, (1) We certainly hope any non-electronic agency at least investigates FOIAonline; (2) Even an agency with an electronic processing system may benefit from joining FOIAonline; and (3) We hope that nobody thinks “We’ve already got an electronic system so we shouldn’t even check out FOIAonline.”
  • Talking about these issues will help FOIAonline evolve. The EPA, Department of Commerce, and OGIS/NARA have developed FOIAonline through a thorough process, continuing to refine the system and reach out to stakeholders, and while they have summarized some of their most frequent answers, we think our survey can provide additional information and perspective.

While none of the above items may be a complete surprise, the first round of responses does make us optimistic that agencies are aware of FOIAonline, that they are aware of the benefits it is capable of offering, and that the current scope of agency involvement is a function of its recent development. One agency FOIA staffer explained that while the agency wasn’t ready to commit to FOIAonline yet, it did seem like it was the future.

So, we want to make sure it’s the best, most comprehensive and efficient future we can build.

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Sunshine in Government Award honors innovation in FOIA, Senator who defended news coverage

In honor of Sunshine Week, the Sunshine in Government Initiative (SGI) is pleased to recognize three leaders in government who will receive SGI’s Sunshine in Government Award (“Sunshine Award”) for their commitment and work to strengthen open government.

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Can you give 5 minutes for FOIA Online?

For Sunshine Week 2013, SGI member groups are surveying federal agencies to help promote FOIA Online, a system to make, process, and view FOIA requests – and we need your help!

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House panel’s pointed letter to Justice sends impatient message on #FOIA

In a renewed and welcome spirit of bipartisanship, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee earlier this week sent a letter to the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) asking pointed questions about OIP’s actions to encourage agencies to comply with FOIA by reducing backlogs, reigning in the use of statutory exemptions and updating FOIA regulations.  We’re especially appreciative that Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Ca.) and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) mentioned a database of the statutory exemptions to FOIA that we compiled and ProPublica published a while ago.

This is a great time for FOIA because so much has evolved since Congress enacted the 2007 FOIA amendments (pdf) five years ago. FOIA Online is now a realistic option for agencies to go digital with their FOIA operations while realizing huge savings for the federal government, an important aspect to getting any legislation through Congress.

Congress could mandate that agencies move to FOIA Online as their current contracts for FOIA processing expire, invest the savings from the move to a shared service to improving FOIA.  Improvements could include developing further the FOIA Online system, targeting efforts to improve FOIA processing and reduce backlogs and delays, and quickly convening a FOIA Delays Commission to compile and identify other areas for improvements.

There are many problems with FOIA administration today and many areas for improvement.  Some require executive branch action while others would require legislation.  Any legislative actions around FOIA will have attract the support of Senate and House leaders, a growing number of whom want to see the Freedom of Information Act inform the American public while protecting what deserves protection and serve as a dependable tool for obtaining from government vital information in a timely, efficient and impartial manner.

FOIA Online goes live; new tool to track FOIA requests, responses

Journalists who regularly use the federal FOIA will complain bitterly about lost requests, long delays and agency responses that give no indication whether and when the agency will actually turn over documents.  But a new system that went live October 1 promises to make it easier on agencies and requesters alike to keep track of requests and make the FOIA process more efficient.

The new system, called FOIA Online, allows anyone to search pending FOIA requests and documents already released as the result of previous FOIA requests, submit a new FOIA request to an agency, track requests, see the status of any request and receive agency correspondence and documents all within the new system. And for FOIA geeks like us, it provides anyone the ability to search the tracking data, identify trends and keep tabs on how well (or poorly) any agency is fulfilling its obligations under FOIA.  We also hope it’s a useful tool for government folks responsible for keeping the FOIA responses flowing to find and fix the bottlenecks that slow FOIA responses.

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