FOIA portal promises streamlined service

The Justice Department unveiled its national portal for submitting Freedom of Information Act requests to federal agencies.

As the number of FOIA requests has been rising -- reaching an all-time high in fiscal year 2017 -- the process had become increasingly frustrating for citizens and agencies both.

Launched  on March 8, the new cloud-based portal allows users to submit requests to any of the 116 agencies covered by the transparency law.

The portal, which was mandated under the 2016 FOIA Improvement Act, is interoperable with agencies' current FOIA systems and was developed by a team from the Justice Department's Office of Information Policy, its CIO office, the General Services Adinistration's18F as well as technical contractors.

Beyond being a portal for making FOIA requests, the goal of the site was to include features to make the often-frustrating FOIA process easier for both requesters and agencies, Melanie Pustay, the director of Justice's Office of Information Policy, said at a demonstration of the new website for reporters.

Justice Department CIO Joseph Klimavicz said the new site's features should improve transparency and functionality and modernize the business process by centralizing FOIA request submissions. 

The site includes tips on submitting FOIA requests, a search function to find already-public information as well as a time estimate for when to expect a response. Individual agency pages include descriptions about what information is or is not available from that agency's records.  

Each agency covered by FOIA has a designated official to manage the requests from the portal site.

In all, standing up the site -- and covering operating and maintenance costs through fiscal year 2018 -- cost $1.8 million, Pustay said. Future operations and maintenance will be funded by the top 17 agencies that receive the bulk of FOIA-related appropriations, she added.

Pustay said the development group plans to build on this first iteration of the portal. Specifically, she said future versions could include more functionality for helping users identify the right agency from which to request records, building in more intelligence related to how government is organized as well as other improvements suggested by users.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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