Improving the FOIA Rules at HUD
by Cynthia Malley , 8/2/2013
Agency rules for implementing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) should streamline processes, improve service, and further transparency. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has recently proposed new FOIA regulations to update their rules. In response, the Center for Effective Government submitted comments on HUD’s proposal, suggesting changes that would clarify and streamline processes while maintaining the best customer service through improved communication with requesters.
Some of the key issues we address in our comments include:
Increasing online disclosure: Posting records online can make information more easily available to the public and reduce duplicative FOIA requests. Agencies should post records that have been produced for a previous FOIA request as well as proactively, in advance of any request. Posting these records online in a user-friendly, indexed, searchable format will make it easier for the public to access desired information while minimizing unnecessary, duplicative FOIA requests.
Improving communication with requesters: Clear and open communication between requesters and agency staff is vital to an effective, user-friendly FOIA process. A few key reforms can open the lines of communication and provide requesters with relevant information to guide them through the process. The use of a web portal or email correspondence, where appropriate, would allow requests, appeals, and other paperwork to be submitted electronically, while providing agencies an efficient means of providing status updates and important notifications to requesters. For example, requesters should be informed of the approximate time needed to complete the request, opportunities to reformulate requests, and any notifications such as the request’s referral, rerouting, or delay.
Streamlining fee processes: Agencies can also adopt reforms to improve procedures for assessing, reducing, and waiving fees – a process that can be time consuming, frustrating, and costly.
One particularly problematic aspect of HUD’s proposal relates to its conditions for waiving or reducing fees for FOIA requesters. FOIA requires agencies to reduce or waive fees when the disclosure of information would significantly contribute to public understanding of government activities and not primarily a commercial interest.
However, HUD proposes to use “cost effectiveness” as an additional criterion in deciding whether to grant fee waivers – a troublesome factor with no basis in the law. This could mean that requesters who are legally qualified for a fee reduction or waiver could be denied by HUD because of the cost. HUD should remove this idea from its final regulations.
As HUD reviews comments and finalizes its new FOIA regulations, we urge them to utilize our recommendations as a guide. Throughout this update, HUD should continue to work toward rules which minimize delays, embrace modern technology, and produce navigable, streamlined processes for both requesters and FOIA staff.