#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.

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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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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OGIS & OMB decide not to make recommendations to Congress

We are deeply disappointed and concerned that the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) — the FOIA Ombudsman — will not be transmitting its recommendations to Congress for improving FOIA.

OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet sent a letter to Senators Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Ranking Member Charles Grassley noting that OGIS sent draft recommendations to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and after consulting with them decided not to send recommendations to Congress.

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Leahy and Grassley: We want those OGIS recommendations. We do, too.

A month after senators Patrick Leahy and Charles Grassley complained bitterly, the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) has still not released its long-delayed recommendations to Congress and the President on improving the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process.  OGIS should immediately release to the public recommendations for substantially improving how FOIA works for both agencies and requesters and regularly report on the government’s progress.

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