Hill demands E-FOIA review

Hill demands E-FOIA review

In a letter to GAO, Sen. Fred Thompson seeks answers on compliance.

Congress: Are agencies obeying law?

By Shruti Dat'

GCN Staff

Concerned whether agencies are complying with the Electronic Freedom of Information Act, the General Accounting Office soon will begin a comprehensive study of its implementation.

Both chambers of Congress have asked GAO to conduct its first thorough examination of whether agencies are meeting the requirements of the 1996 E-FOIA amendments. Although the deadlines for compliance have passed, GAO officials said lawmakers are uncertain about the level of compliance with the mandates. This is the congressional watchdog agency's first audit on E-FOIA implementation.

In late February, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) asked GAO to look into E-FOIA implementation. Rep. Steve Horn (R-Calif.) made a similar request in April.

'With the final deadline having passed, we want to be sure that the Electronic Freedom of Information Act amendments are fully implemented,' Leahy and Thompson said in a letter to GAO Comptroller General David Walker.

The E-FOIA amendments included four deadlines:

•By March 31, 1997, agencies had to issue a guide that included an index of all major information systems, a description of information and record locator systems, and a handbook on how to obtain information.

•By Nov. 1, 1997, agencies had to establish regulations to expedite processing of certain FOIA requests.

•By Dec. 31 of last year, agencies had to publish an electronic index to publicly available records.

•By Feb. 1, agencies had to begin filing annual reports on their E-FOIA programs based on guidelines set by the Office of the Attorney General and Office of Management and Budget.

Besides checking on agencies' compliance with the amendments, Thompson and Leahy also asked GAO to report on whether agencies are responding in a timely manner to FOIA requests. Under the amendments, agencies must make an initial response to an electronic FOIA request within 10 days of receiving it.

'As part of your examination, please determine how well agencies are complying with the response deadline, including for each agency whether any backlog of FOIA requests exist,' the senators' letter said.

The senators also asked GAO to examine whether there are reasons, such as other statutory burdens, that make it difficult for agencies to completely comply with the E-FOIA mandates.

Michael Brostek, associate director for federal management and work force issues in GAO's General Government Division, said auditors will conduct extensive interviews with agencies' FOIA officers and examine agencies' Web sites.

Brostek said his office will also gather information from OMB.

OMB Watch, a nonprofit public interest group in Washington, has released two reports on E-FOIA implementation. The most recent report, An OMB Watch Update Report on the Implementation of the 1996 E-FOIA Amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, said that as of November no agency was in full compliance. And compliance varies greatly from agency to agency, OMB Watch found.

'While some departments or bureaus of an agency have excellent E-FOIA guides, indexes and reading rooms, others have little or no information disseminated online,' the group's report said.

Although agencies are moving information to Web sites quickly, OMB Watch said, the information is 'often unorganized, unrelated and difficult to find.'

OMB Watch recommended that Congress establish enforcement mechanisms for compliance and provide regular oversight.

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