A new federal website launched Oct. 1 could speed processing of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and release more information to the public. FOIAonline is a multi-agency portal that allows the public to submit and track requests, receive responses, and search others' requests through a single website. The system also provides agencies new features to assist with processing requests, which could improve timeliness and reduce backlogs. Agencies can also use the system to publish their responses to FOIA requests, which would make this information more widely accessible.
The launch of FOIAonline represents a major advance in modernizing the FOIA system to deliver transparency more effectively and efficiently. OMB Watch and other open government groups have long advocated for the development of such a system.
Before: Manual, Dispersed
FOIA is a vital tool for government transparency and accountability, as it provides the public with information necessary to understand what government is doing. Hundreds, if not thousands, of FOIA requests are filed every day by companies, journalists, advocates, and citizens seeking answers about every kind of government program and activity. The public can use the information to better understand government actions and participate in debates about public policy.
Under FOIA, citizens have a right to request information from federal agencies. However, each agency has its own procedures for how to submit a request and track its progress. Learning the many different systems can be confusing and time-consuming for requesters. In addition, many agencies currently lack the capacity for online submission and tracking, thus requiring slower and less-convenient mailed letters and phone messages.
Similarly, every agency has its own system for processing requests, each providing different functionality. The various systems don't inter-operate, even within the same department, as a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report showed in July. So when one agency has to refer a request to another agency, the records have to be manually transferred and processed again, which can contribute to delays.
Now: Centralized, Automated
FOIAonline replaces incompatible processing systems with a shared multi-agency system. The new system also provides modern new functions to agencies and requesters.
The public can submit a request to any participating agency through FOIAonline. The system can save all of a user's requests under one account. Then users can log onto FOIAonline to check the status of all their requests, send questions to FOIA officers, or appeal decisions. A user's information will be saved so it doesn't have to be re-entered for future requests. These features are a significant service improvement for requesters: for instance, few agencies previously offered the ability to submit an appeal through a website.
On the agency side of the equation, the new system allows for much easier consulting with other agencies. Consultations can be handled within the system, eliminating the need to manually transfer documents. In addition, the system offers features to automate other required activities in agency processing, such as creating invoices. These features could make FOIA processing timelier and more efficient. Faster processing would be a welcome improvement, as tens of thousands of requests are currently pending in agencies past statutory deadlines.
When a response is delivered, the documents are posted on FOIAonline and the requester is notified. The released documents will be available to the public, not just the requester, as was previously common practice, thus making more information accessible and potentially eliminating similar or duplicate requests.
Developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Commerce Department, FOIAonline leverages the existing infrastructure of Regulations.gov. The Treasury Department is also participating in the system, as well as two smaller independent agencies. Additional agencies may join FOIAonline in the future.
Earlier estimates put the cost to build the system at about $1.3 million, with annual operating costs of $500,000 to $750,000. Potential cost savings from utilizing the system, assuming every agency participated, were estimated at up to $200 million over five years. This represents a huge return on investment. Although only a subset of agencies is participating at the outset, the savings could still be substantial – and these resources could be put into programs or further improving agencies' operations.
With a handful of agencies initially participating, FOIAonline could be seen as a pilot program. Deploying the system to a few initial agencies will allow the project team to gain experience and identify issues that can be remedied before scaling the system up. Hopefully the developers will continue to pay close attention to agency and requester feedback and iteratively refine FOIAonline based on those reactions. If they do, the system could be even more effective when more agencies adopt it in the future. This is an important step toward realizing the long-sought goal of a single, government-wide system for delivering government information to the citizens who request it.