Agencies lag in E-FOIA efforts

Plagued by limited funds, personnel and resources, agencies have found that although
the Freedom of Information Act may be going electronic, many government documents are not.


An informal GCN survey of 19 agencies found seven had not yet met E-FOIA's November
mandate that agencies create an online reading room for frequently requested documents and
document indexes.


Some agencies that have established reading rooms on their World Wide Web sites have
posted few if any records. The Agriculture Department's FOIA site, for example, says,
"The Reading Room is currently empty."


Although the State Department has a large number of documents on its site, it does not
have a designated FOIA reading room. A spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget
said its entire Web site served as the electronic reading room.


Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), a sponsor of the E-FOIA law, was looking for less
promotional information and more useful information, said Judith Krug, director of the
Office for Intellectual Freedom for the American Library Association.


"In retrospect, I think we were all probably naive," she said.


The Washington public-interest group Public Citizen filed suit against seven agencies
for failing to meet the requirements of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act
amendments and the 1995 Paperwork Reduction Act.


The suit, filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, charges that
the seven agencies had failed to create an index with a description of all major
information and record locator systems.


Under the 1996 Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments, signed by President
Clinton in April 1995, agencies had until November to create online reading rooms that
housed inventories of all major information systems and records locators, documents
created since November 1996, and often-requested documents.


The law defined often-requested items as documents that "the agency determines
have become or are likely to become the subject of subsequent requests for substantially
the same records."


"What we found was that a large number of agencies were ignoring that requirement,
including a number of the most prominent agencies," said Michael Tankersley, senior
staff attorney for Public Citizen.


Specifically, Public Citizen named the Office of Management and Budget, the White House
Office of Administration, the U.S. Trade Representative and the departments of Education,
Energy, Justice and State.


The electronic reading room requirement is only one part of E-FOIA--in some ways, the
easiest part.


The law broadened the government's definition of a document to include electronic
records and required agencies to honor requests that agencies provide information in
different formats.


On March 31, agencies were required to make records that had been or are likely to be
requested available without a FOIA request.


The law also expanded the FOIA reporting requirements.


Each fiscal year, agencies must inform Congress about the number of FOIA requests, the
time it takes to process the requests, and a scorecard on the number of approvals, denials
and pending requests.


Several agencies have been proactive in their efforts to meet the E-FOIA requirements.
The Veterans Affairs Department has a Web site that calls out the name of each room and
provides information under a variety of subjects.


And each of NASA's centers has its own reading room.


Many agencies, including NASA, accept FOIA requests electronically via their Web sites.
NASA has seen a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in the number of requests, said FOIA
officer Patricia M. Riep-Dice.


Many of the additional inquiries, however, are for information available without a FOIA
request or for information that is already available in the reading room, she said.


"Those additional requests will disappear with time," she predicted.


One hindrance is technology, government officials said. Few FOIA offices, even those
with extensive online libraries, have back-end systems that automate the FOIA process.


Theresa Houser, NASA's information resource manager, said the FOIA office at NASA
headquarters accepts electronic requests but prints them and treats them like other hard
copy requests.


The FOIA office uses a Claris Corp.'s FileMaker Pro database that lets NASA track the
requests, their resolution and time spent on each response.


There is software available to automate the FOIA process.


Vredenburg of Reston, Va., has an E-FOIA package that is designed to automate the
entire process.


Vredenburg's application, like Imagine FOIA software from Imagination Software Inc. [GCN,
Dec. 15, 1997, Page 1], deals with all aspects of the process, from generating reports to
tracking responses.


One of the most time-consuming parts of the process is document redaction, where agency
FOIA officials determine and remove information that cannot be released.


FOIA officers have used black markers to block out the classified or personal
information on paper documents.


That process will still need to be done by someone, but it is possible to do it online,
said Laurance E. Den, Vredenburg's vice president of information technology.


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