Drumroll, please...<@VM>These vendors offer a range of E-FOIA programs
After years of having nothing up their sleeves,
vendors are emerging with workable E-FOIA programs
By Caron Golden
Special to GCN
When President Clinton signed into law the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996, the intent was to have federal agencies take advantage of technology to expedite public access to their records and reduce the backlog of FOIA cases. But after four years, the federal agencies mandated to implement E-FOIA are only now beginning to use software that can help them move forward.
FOIA officers and information technology chiefs attribute the snail-paced adoption of E-FOIA to a combination of factors. With some exceptions, they say, there is a lack of in-house technical expertise, especially in putting together Web sites for electronic reading rooms and for programming software. There also have been few truly workable applications.
And finally, with FOIA compliance being an unfunded activity, agencies have had to scramble to pull together a budget for applications that early on were deemed outrageously expensive.Know your role
'We're experts in FOIA, not computing,' said Doris Lama, head of the Navy's Privacy and FOIA Department. 'Here we are expected to pull a rabbit out of a hat. We have the rabbit, but not the hat.'
Offices like Lama's have been looking for such features as automatic redaction of confidential passages, less typing, greater tracking ability and automatic report generation.
In fact, the latter is on everyone's mind when it comes to creating the massive annual compliance report each agency must provide to the Justice Department. 'That report is horrible,' Lama said. 'It's the most time-intensive part of FOIA processing.'
And, she said, a lot of companies have had mixed success in coming up with cost-effective applications.
But that, apparently, is changing. After interviewing FOIA officers about what they do and how they do it, companies such as Metastorm Inc., Vredenburg and AINS Inc. are developing more reasonably priced soup-to-nuts applications, while integrators such as DoxSys Inc. are customizing existing document management systems.
'We asked FOIA officers what they do and tried to learn from their pain and frustration,' said Cristina Farr of AINS.
Vredenburg is widely acknowledged as having been the first with an E-FOIA program two years ago. The company's focus has been the Defense Department, the intelligence community and criminal justice organizations, said Larry Den, the company's vice president of information technology.
The company installed its V:EFOIA system in the National Reconnaissance Office and is currently deploying the software at the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Vrendenburg also is working on an end-to-end system for the FBI, which, Den acknowledged, is taking longer than it should.
|Have an E-FOIA plan|
' Learn your agency's architecture to make sure that the system you choose fits what you have.
' Consider the volume of Freedom
of Information Act requests you
process and find out how well-matched the application is to your volume.
' Check references. If the system isn't yet in use somewhere else, be careful about applying it.
' Make sure the program can be updated easily, and find out the price of tech support. What kind of backup is available if the system crashes or a virus hits it?
' Determine how flexible the system is. Can you go back and forth through the menu to make
corrections? Can you make adjustments when fees or report requirements change?
' Make sure the system is user-friendly and visually pleasing so even the least technically proficient user can make sense of it.
Den describes V:EFOIA as a Microsoft Windows NT suite of request and document management software that can run under Windows 95 and 98 on PCs and uses an Oracle database. It includes a request manager that lets FOIA officers track cases from start to finish and to do automatic redactions.
The product includes an intuitive user interface, a payment manager, tracking and reporting features, and Web services. Although it comes as a standard model, its features can be customized for an additional fee.
Released in February last year, the application is currently in Version 1.4. Den said a full, 32-bit implementation will soon be released as Version 2.0 and will include enhanced Web publishing capability.
Vredenburg charges by the seat on a sliding scale; the standalone price is $6,000 and goes up about $1,500 per user.
FOIAXpress is an electronic-document management application that AINS released this May.
Another soup-to-nuts program, it works with all Microsoft operating systems, said Farr, the company's product manager.
The company currently is involved in pilot programs with a variety of agencies, including the Education Department and Navy.
The price of the system, Farr said, is $45,000 and includes the basic software, five user licenses, one day of technical support for the initial configuration and two days of training.
Agencies with in-house experts came up with a different approach to E-FOIA systems. When a FOIA officer asked Jim Browning, the computer specialist for the Minerals Management Services' Royalty Management Program in Denver, if his department could handle E-FOIA requests, his response was, 'Sure.'All systems ready
One year and $200,000 later, the system is in place. The agency chose integrator DoxSys, which created a system using ViewStar from Lucent Technologies Inc. of Murray Hill, N.J. 'It's a high-speed industrial-strength scan index and archive workflow system,' Browning said.
Susan Janger, DoxSys' senior solutions architect, described the system as a phased approach to implementing E-FOIA. Agencies can scan in previously redacted FOIA documents for electronic storage and retrieval and create both Web and non-Web interfaces. Next, they develop a workflow map using existing software to provide FOIA officers flexibility in responding to requests.
'This is a scalable, customized system based on a particular FOIA office and its unique rules,' said Janger.
What the program doesn't include is a database management system. DoxSys tends to recommend something simple such as Microsoft Access. Browning, however, created his own database into which numbers can be dumped and which, he said, generates reports fairly easily.
But even Browning acknowledges that as good as his system is, it still has glitches'mostly due to compatibility problems with Windows 98.
At this early stage in the development of E-FOIA programs, in fact, glitches seem to be the norm.
Even as the products are improving, there are stories of agencies having to do redactions by hand, for example. So it is essential to do your homework to learn what questions to ask vendors and to ask colleagues who have already committed to an application.Caron Golden is a free-lance writer based in San Diego.
FOIAXpress is an end-to-end electronic document management system for handling Electronic Freedom of Information Act requests that runs under Microsoft Windows OSes. It's priced at $45,000 for a five-user license.
DoxSys is a system integrator whose Integrated Document Management System incorporates applications and database management into a system for scanning, retrieving and responding to FOIA requests. It runs under Windows and can supply a Web interface.
The company's services in integrating networks and electronic commerce includes end-to-end electronic FOIA processing.
Integration Technologies Group
Falls Church, Va.
ITG's FOIA Request Tracking, which runs under Windows, lets agencies record, respond to, track and report on electronic FOIA requests.
McNeil Technologies Inc.
The company's electronic FOIA services include request processing, document redaction, records management, document scanning and cataloging, and backlog support. McNeil also provides FOIA training.
Severna Park, Md.
Metastorm, which in May acquired Software Systems Group Inc. of Springfield, Va., offers E(PM)-FOIA2000, a system that includes a configurable request folder, document imaging, redaction and annotation. E(PM)-FOIA2000, priced at $19,595 for a five-user license, runs under Window.
Vredenburg's V:EFOIA is an end-to-end suite of document management software for handling FOIA requests. It includes tracking and reporting features and Web services. It's priced at $6,000, plus $1,500 for each additional user.