CBO releases cost estimate on FOIA bill, but doesn’t address savings

The CBO score is out on the FOIA reform bill and it estimates the bill would add $20 million over 5 years in federal expenses. It’s a frustrating analysis because it does not reflect any savings from making FOIA processing more efficient by, e.g., using a shared FOIA processing service such as FOIAonline.  Such problems are typical with CBO cost estimates, and traditionally it is very difficult to get CBO to adjust their scores.  Congress will have to find savings of at least equal to the net cost from the legislation to meet pay-as-you-go requirements before the bill could be approved.  Or Congress could waive that requirement, but that is highly unlikely.

This supports adjusting the bill to tie closing of contracts with a shift to FOIAonline or other system that makes the process more efficient.  Such systems could, for example, allow various agencies to “talk” to one another digitally while processing a FOIA request.

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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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Prospects for mediation at OGIS

The OPEN Government Act of 2007, which amended the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and created the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), set out two tasks for the fledgling agency in the new section (h). First, OGIS is expected to review administrative agencies’ Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policies, procedures, and compliance – and use what it learns to propose policy changes to Congress and the President. (As we blogged about last month.)

Second, and central to this analysis, OGIS is expected to “offer mediation services… as a non-exclusive alternative to [FOIA] litigation.” Mediation services, as OGIS explained, includes “a range of services within that spectrum. Both mediation and facilitation are forms of ‘mediation services.’.” During its first year, OGIS reported that facilitation succeeded fully in about 82% of cases (68/83).

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For OGIS, road to recommendations reveals not enough independence

When the Office of Management and Budget cleared the FOIA Ombudsman to issue its recommendations for improving FOIA operations, it was a win in the battle for open government.  However, the difficult process, in which we and others made a stink and Congress had to become involved, has made clear that the Office of Government Information Services does not yet have the independence that Congress considered so crucial for it to succeed.

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Fixing FOIA: Commentators reacting to DOJ’s reversal

The reaction was swift when the Justice Department confirmed in a letter to Senators Charles Grassley and Patrick Leahy that they would not move forward with their plan to say documents don’t exist when, in fact, they do.  You can read the reaction through a simple Google search.

Fixing FOIA update: Justice backs away from “lying”

Today we’re happy to note the Justice Department is withdrawing its proposed rule to sanction responding to certain FOIA requests for law enforcement records as if records did not exist when, in fact, information does exist (but is out of FOIA’s reach).

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