By ANDREW WYNER
A House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee belatedly celebrated Sunshine Week this past Wednesday by hosting a hearing on FOIA in the 21st century (the House was out of session during Sunshine Week itself). The witnesses, selected both from good government organizations and federal agencies, all testified before the Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform on the importance of online Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) services. Witnesses were not, however, in complete agreement in exactly how to bring FOIA into the 21st century.
The FOIA Portal, being developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Archives (NARA), and the Department of Commerce, received high marks from Members of Congress and witnesses alike. Acting Subcommittee Chairman Mike Kelly (D-PA) and Ranking Member Gerry Connolly (D-VA) were both enthused by the FOIA Portal and the positive impact it would have. Sean Moulton, director of Federal Information Policy at OMB Watch, stated “Congress should make it clear it’s best for every agency to participate.” Moulton said that the problem with FOIA is “a lack of consistency. The FOIA portal offers a level of consistency across government.”
He said the portal will improve customer service and increase efficiency. He also reasoned that it will reduce FOIA processing times, an issue POGO is especially concerned with. Moreover, Moulton testified that the portal encourages proactive disclosure, allowing agencies to upload previously released documents for greater public access. Intimating that the EPA portal will be much more robust than the Department of Justice's, Moulton said, “Features of the EPA FOIA portal far outstrip those of the portals being developed by other agencies.”
Miriam Nisbit, director of NARA’s Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), encouraged federal agencies to standardize FOIA sites and embrace new technology. She argued that cross-agency compliance would be a cost-effective and efficient way of creating a uniform FOIA service. The National Archives wrote that a government-wide FOIA portal would save $200 million over the next five years,
Promoting the portal spearheaded by his agency, Andrew Battin, EPA’s Office of Environmental Information (OEI) director, emphasized the importance of technology in moving FOIA administration forward. Creating a government-wide portal will improve the FOIA experience for both agencies and requestors. Requestors will be able to track requests in a transparent way, communicate with FOIA officers easily, and access documents in a repository of previously disclosed files. Alternatively, agencies will benefit from greater cross-agency communication and less duplication of effort in processing the same requests.
On the other hand, Melanie Pustay, director of DOJ's Office of Information Policy seemed reluctant to put her full support behind EPA’s portal. Although Pustay acknowledged the benefits of the multi-agency portal and said that DOJ is “watching with interest,” she defended DOJ’s new website, FOIA.gov. She maintained that DOJ’s portal is already up and running and includes helpful hyperlinks to other agencies’ requestor forms. FOIA.gov, however, serves as a very informative website and not a portal for requests and responses. Considering its role as the head of federal FOIA compliance, it is important for DOJ to back EPA’s strong efforts in order to encourage other federal agencies to adopt the portal.
POGO is pleased that both chambers of Congress are holding hearings on the future of FOIA. But considering the work left to be done, it is crucial that both Congress and DOJ support EPA’s portal fully to bring FOIA into the 21st century.
Andrew Wyner is a POGO intern.