By ANDREW WYNER
Sunshine week may be behind us, but the quest for a more open and accountable government continues. Tomorrow, a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (HOGR) subcommittee is set to hold a hearing on moving the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) into the 21st century. In the spirit of that hearing and of exploring solutions for some of the enduring problems in FOIA administration that we wrote about last week, here’s a look at two key policy solutions that would help modernize FOIA administration.
First there’s the Faster FOIA Act (S. 1466), introduced by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX). The House version, H.R. 1564, was introduced by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA). The Faster FOIA Act would create an advisory panel to evaluate how to reduce delays in the FOIA process. The Senate unanimously passed the Faster FOIA Act in 2011, but the House has yet to take action on the bill. POGO strongly urges HOGR chair Darrell Issa (R-CA) to take up and pass the Faster FOIA Act.
Second, there’s the multi-agency FOIA Portal. The FOIA Portal, now a pilot program under development by the Office of Government Information Services (or OGIS, which is housed under the National Archives and Records Administration), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Commerce, would go a long way towards improving FOIA efficiency and transparency if its vision for going government-wide is fulfilled. It is being designed as a one-stop-shop for FOIA requesters and a uniform tool for FOIA administration across agencies.
The Portal would streamline the process for requestors, allowing individuals to go to one central website to submit requests, monitor their request’s progress through a tracking number, and receive final responses. After compiling the requested records, FOIA officers will upload documents not only for the requestor, but also for the general public to access. On the Portal, requestors will also be able provide any additional information and calculate and pay fees.
Not only would the FOIA Portal increase transparency, but it also would save the government beaucoup time and money. FOIA offices will no longer have to handle the same request up to multiple times and, according to NARA, will save around $200 million (based on government-wide adoption) over the next five years.
There are a few challenges to tackle before the FOIA Portal’s October launch. There currently is no allocated funding beyond the initial version and maintenance, leaving no funding for future updates and improvements. While it will be useful as a multi-agency, non-proprietary tool in any case, to maximize the value of the Portal, all government agencies should adopt it for their FOIA administration. This means that the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP), which is responsible for federal FOIA compliancy, must team up with OGIS, EPA, and the Department of Commerce in order to make it as robust as possible, and encourage all federal agencies to adopt the FOIA Portal.
OIP recently launched FOIA.gov, but its purpose and functionality are quite different from that of the FOIA Portal. FOIA.gov allows the public to learn more about FOIA and government information in general—and FOIA performance in particular. It does not currently allow visitors to make requests or track them, nor does it provide FOIA offices with an administration system. While some FOIA offices already have some kind of program for online request tracking, nearly all of these programs are proprietary (developed and owned by private companies outside the government) and currently don’t “talk to one another.” OIP should get behind the idea of having one government-owned program available for all FOIA offices and one place for all requesters to go to get federal information: OIP should support the FOIA Portal.
POGO, along with the American Society of News Editors, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), OMB Watch, OpenTheGovernment.org, and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, sent a letter yesterday to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) reaffirming the importance of a government-wide FOIA Portal and urging the White House’s full support. The letter argues that:
By leveraging existing multi-agency efforts, the FOIA portal presents an innovative, shared solution that can reduce processing costs, support compliance with statutory deadlines, and improve customer service. Openness groups like those we represent would applaud the administration’s endorsement of the FOIA portal as part of implementing its National Action Plan goal.
Further, Patrice McDermott, the executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, says that a FOIA Portal would be very beneficial to everyone involved in the FOIA process. “It will be very powerful and very useful both to government agencies to manage requests and to the requestor community to track and communicate more directly.”
POGO hopes that in its upcoming hearing, House Oversight Committee members and its witnesses will dive deep into the many benefits and remaining challenges of both the FOIA Portal and the Faster FOIA Act. Taken together, these solutions would truly take FOIA into the 21st century.
Andrew Wyner is a POGO intern.
Image via Clearly Ambiguous.