FOIA search through files

Agencies make FOIA gains, but critics say it’s not enough

Federal agencies are expanding their use of technology - from social media broadcasts that highlight new information to records management systems for easier searching - in an effort to become more transparent and effective in meeting a rising number of FOIA requests every year.

Several Justice Department divisions are using electronic platforms to improve workflows, automate searches and deduplicate processes in meeting Freedom of Information Act requests.

At the Federal Trade Commission, staff members update monthly logs on a public website to help people track FOIA requests. And the Department of Homeland Security has posted more than 16,000 pages of records such as procurement documents over the past year.

In recently filed annual reports to DOJ, Chief FOIA officers outlined progress their agencies are making in addressing five key areas outlined in a 2009 memo from Attorney General Eric Holder.

These include: applying the presumption of openness; ensuring that effective systems are in place to respond to requests; increasing proactive disclosures; expanding use of technology; and expediting requests while reducing backlogs. A DOJ blog is highlighting achievements by federal agencies in each area.

Here are examples of how different agencies are using technology to facilitate FOIA requests:

FOIA staff at several federal agencies are using a file transfer system called the Safe Access File Exchange to securely upload and download very large files, up to 2 GB, to help streamline referrals and consultations.

At the Defense Department, the Defense Freedom of Information and Policy Office is “finalizing” an internal, centralized FOIA site within Intelink - another file transfer system - to help make processing requests faster and more efficient. DOD offices will be able to access letter samples, training materials policy and internal processes, as well as chat and share information about FOIA cases.

Also within DOD, U.S. Central Command has implemented software to remove duplicate records from computer programs so FOIA processors don’t waste time and effort reviewing the same document multiple times. The Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and others are planning to obtain this software as well.

Bureaus within the Interior Department are using collaboration software to help speed up the document review process among several stakeholders and also post internal guidance for processing documents in response to requests.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is launching a new records and information management program to make it easier to search, locate and access paper and electronic documents, including emails, across multiple sites.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency expects to launch a redesigned and updated public website to present information in a customer-centric way. It also plans to use document metadata to improve searches, solicit feedback from to better understand content priorities, use analytics and apply best website practices. A 508 compliance expert will also analyze the website and documents to ensure accessibility.

Yet while agencies are improving FOIA administration and processing using technology, critics say they still have a long way to go.

Amy Bennett, assistant director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of watchdog groups that advocates for greater government openness and accountability, said DOJ has been more of a “cheerleader” for agencies rather than pointing out problem areas. She said while technology is helping streamline FOIA processing here and there, “technology has much greater power if you use it throughout the entire process.”

For example, she said until recently DOJ opposed the concept of a centralized portal - such as FOIAonline - where users can make and manage a single request rather than going to hundreds of different portals. FOIAonline was launched jointly by NARA and the Environmental Protection Agency in October 2012 and currently has eight participating agencies.

Bennett said that it’s not just about improving service for requesters, but also making sure agency systems can talk to each other.

“Right now, if an agency has to consult with another agency because part of the record or information belongs to another agency, they send it off to that agency and that agency reviews it and then sends the documents back. A lot of that is being done over the U.S. mail because the systems don’t talk to each other,” she said. “And that’s not a 21st century practice.”

Bennett’s concerns are echoed in recent reports by other watchdog groups.

In March, the non-profit National Security Archive released an audit that found that more than half of 101 agencies, “have old regulations that simply ignore” Holder’s guidance for a “presumption of disclosure.” Around the same time, the Center for Effective Government released a report rating 15 agencies on three areas: processing FOIA requests, establishing rules for access and creating user-friendly websites and other online services. Only eight received passing grades, although the report indicated that the agencies scored better on technology than on the other two areas.

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