"A People Armed?" Agency E-FOIA Implementation

On October 2, 1996, President Clinton signed the Electronic Freedom of Information Act (E-FOIA) Amendments into law. These new provisions of the thirty-year-old Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are the first to guarantee public access to federal government information electronically. The intent was that by agencies making records, record indexes, and a FOIA guide available online to fulfill these amendments members of the public could easily find and obtain access to records regarding federal government projects and policies. Can they? A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives." James Madison. Letter to W.T. Barry, Aug. 4, 1822, in G.P. Hunt, ed., IX The Writings of James Madison 103 (1910).] CONTENTS Executive Summary Background Requirements of the Electronic Freedom of Information Amendments OMB Watch Study Methodology OMB Watch Study Results Policy Recommendations Tabular Study Results Appendix A Federal Departments Examined & FOIA URLs Appendix B Federal Agencies Examined & FOIA URLs Appendix C Federal Government Agencies Directory This report has also been published as a Special Issue of The Government Information INSIDER, Patrice McDermott, editor. The Government Information INSIDER has been published by OMB Watch, 1742 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20009; 202-234-8494. OMB Watch is a nonprofit public interest group that monitors the Executive Branch and advocates for broad public participation in government decision-making and a more open and accountable federal government. An Update Report on the Implementation of The Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 Executive Summary On October 2, 1996, President Clinton signed the Electronic Freedom of Information Act (E-FOIA) Amendments into law. These new provisions of the thirty-year-old Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are the first to guarantee public access to federal government information electronically. The intent was that by agencies making records, record indexes, and a FOIA guide available online to fulfill these amendments members of the public could easily find and obtain access to records regarding federal government projects and policies. Can they? All but one of the deadlines outlined in the E-FOIA amendments have come and gone. Still, a majority of agencies have not fully met their obligations to provide electronically all information outlined in the amendments. This, second, report is based on the examination of 144 federal E-FOIA web sites to determine the level of compliance with the 1996 amendments. Overall, this study found that:
  • A stunningly high number of federal government entities are not "registered" on the Department of Justice's "Other Agencies" FOIA web site, as can be seen by comparison of Appendices A and B. There is no legal requirement for agencies to identify themselves to DOJ, nor an official FOIA registry. Some of these entities may be in compliance with the requirements of the E-FOIA amendments, but the lack of representation on the Justice site raises serious questions about that probability. And, as Justice is intended (as indicated in the legislative history) to ensure compliance, it seemed the logical place to look for evidence of that compliance.
  • In a majority of the agency sites examined, FOIA information is easier to find online than in early 1998. It is often visible on the agency's main home page. However, more than one-third of the web sites do not have links from the agency's home page. The amendments did not require that the information be easily found, but we consider such a link key to public access.
  • More specifically, of the 64 agencies examined (Appendix A), 7 (11%) have no useful E-FOIA presence, 57 (89%) have varying degrees of compliance with the requirements, and, as of November 24 1999, no agency had complied fully with the amendments.
  • It is still the case that agencies that have decentralized the responsibility for E-FOIA to satellite offices in different units within the agency often have an uneven dissemination of information due to a "hands-off" approach. While some departments or bureaus of an agency have excellent E-FOIA guides, indexes and reading rooms, others have little or no information disseminated online.
  • It is still the case that agencies are moving at a great speed to provide information online. Unfortunately, this information in particular, information about agency records and decision-making still is often unorganized, unrelated, and difficult to find. In many cases, agencies may have complied with E-FOIA requirements, but we were unable to verify this compliance because no clear markers for this information existed on these web sites.
  • It is still the case that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), assigned the responsibility of providing guidance on the implementation of E-FOIA, has done nothing since 1998 (when it issued "Updated Guidance" in 1998, that did very little to remedy the serious problems with their earlier guidance) to aid agencies in fulfilling their requirements. Agencies, therefore, have looked to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for detailed explanations of the amendments as well as guidance and examples of implementation and reporting. While the DOJ information can be useful, its availability does not relieve OMB of its responsibility to ensure that agencies have adequate information to implement the law.
  • The guidance that OMB has provided has led some agencies to be out of compliance with the law. April 7, 1997 guidance from OMB on the index requirements of the amendments recommended "establishing a Government Information Locator Service (GILS) presence." Twelve agencies or components (8% of 144 examined) have continued (or, worse, started) to take this advice, regardless of whether their GILS "presence" met the requirements of the amendments or not. %The updated, April 23, 1998, guidance reiterates this recommendation.
  • The Department of Justice has done little other than issuing guides and examples to meet its obligation to encourage agency compliance with the law. It has provided training and information on how to meet the requirements of the amendments, but this is clearly not sufficient given the overall inadequacy of compliance government-wide.
This study indicates that overall, agency compliance with the E-FOIA amendments has been predominantly inadequate. The four overriding reasons for this conclusion are: 1. Congress still has not provided the necessary funding to carry out the implementation of the amendments. 2. OMB still has not provided adequate guidance or assistance to agencies during the implementation process. 3. The encouragement to compliance, which the legislators intended to be vested in the Department of Justice, has been insufficient. 4. Agencies have yet to make public access to government information, especially for accountability, a priority. Findings from this study reveal the following conclusions: OMB must provide better guidance and support to agencies by:
  • articulating exactly what information (as indicated in the amendments and the legislative history) must be included on agency web sites to be in compliance, and creating templates for consistent language and format government-wide;
  • establishing a clear definition of what constitutes a repeatedly requested record; and most importantly,
  • explaining how E-FOIA fits into the larger framework of federal information policy. OMB should follow what it has done in the area of privacy on agency web sites and provide leadership in the area of access.
Agencies' information must be better organized to make locating records online a user-friendly experience. Special emphasis should be placed on providing consistent, easily-identified headings for E-FOIA requirements, such as the Index of Major Information Systems, E-FOIA Handbook, and FOIA-Released Repeatedly Requested Records. Enforcement mechanisms for agency non-compliance must be established immediately. Currently, agencies that do not meet the requirements outlined in the E-FOIA amendments are neither identified nor penalized for non-compliance. Congress must provide regular oversight. Since the passage, there has been only one hearing on the implementation. Congressional oversight must also include attention to reporting by the Department of Justice on their efforts to encourage full agency compliance. Unlike our first report on the implementation of the E-FOIA amendments, this study did not note (for reporting purposes) notable practices — good or bad — on individual agency or component web sites. We hope to do a follow-up report on those aspects next year. I. BACKGROUND Evolution of the Freedom of Information Act and Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was first signed into law in 1966. Through this Act, every citizen of the United States gained the right to access and obtain reproductions of records created and maintained by federal government agencies. The Act was originally created to "ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed." Since 1966, the Freedom of Information Act has been amended six times: in 1974, (with minor amendments in 1976, 1978, and 1984), in 1986, and in 1996. In each instance, the original Act has been broadened to include more information deemed necessary to the public as well as to the oversight of the federal government. The Freedom of Information Act covers records created within federal departments, agencies, and offices, federal regulatory agencies, and federal corporations. As defined by the Act, records include paper documents, films, tapes, and other materials created or obtained by an agency as part of its official duties. The 1996 amendments make clear that records also include electronically-created information such as databases, word processing, and e-mail. Under the FOIA, the federal entities listed above are required to disclose records after receipt of a written citizen request, unless the records fall within one of the nine exemptions to the Act. Records may be withheld from the public if they are:(1)
  • Specifically authorized under criteria established by an Executive Order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy, and are classified as such.
  • Related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of any agency.
  • Specifically exempted from disclosure by statute.
  • Trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential.
  • Inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.
  • Personnel or medical files.
  • Records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes.
  • Contained in or related to examination, operating or condition reports prepared by, on behalf of, or for the use of any agency responsible for the regulation or supervision of financial institutions.
  • Geological and geophysical information and data.
The original Freedom of Information Act has been viewed by journalists, public interest organizations, and citizens as an important tool in opening federal agency policies and practices to public scrutiny. The congressional finding accompanying the 1996 amendments to the Act state that the FOIA has "led to the disclosure of waste, fraud, abuse and wrongdoing in the Federal Government," and has "led to the identification of unsafe consumer products, harmful drugs, and serious health hazards."(2) In general, the intent of the new amendments is to provide more timely and less complicated access to federal government records through the use of electronic communication. As noted in the Congressional floor debate, members of the public, using the Freedom of Information Act, regularly request more than 600,000 records a year from federal agencies, a volume that threatens to overwhelm some agencies. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, for example, had a "4-year lag" in fulfilling FOIA requests.(3) Both Representatives and Senators in their debate on these amendments noted that citizens should not have to wait this long to access information about the workings of their own government. Representative Stephen Horn said bluntly that this lag was "simply unacceptable in a free society."(4) Because the Act benefits information seekers regardless of their political affiliation, the 1996 amendments received widespread bipartisan support, passing on a vote of 402-0 in the House, and by voice vote in the Senate. President Clinton affirmed the important function of this legislation, signing the E-FOIA into law on October 2, 1996. Requirements of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments Electronic Reading Rooms Opinions and Orders, Statements of Policy and Staff Manuals Under FOIA, official agency pronouncements that are not published in the Federal Register must either be separately published for sale by the agency, or made available by the agency for public inspection and copying in agency document depositories or Reading Rooms. Agencies must compile, index, and publish or make available for copying: (a) any final opinions and orders in adjudicated cases; (b) statements of policy and interpretations that are not published in the Federal Register; and (c) administrative staff manuals and instructions to staff that affect a member of the public. Since November 1997, agencies have also been required to make final opinions, policy statements and staff manuals — created on or after November 1, 1996 — available in Electronic Reading Rooms (unless they are published and offered for sale). These documents may not simply be placed in the agency's physical document depository, but must be made available on the Internet, another on-line service, or through some other electronic means. Broad categories of records must be made available electronically under this mandate. Initially, under the Administrative Procedures Act, Congress required agencies to publish or make materials available for copying to prevent agencies from maintaining a "secret law" of undisclosed precedents or legal interpretations. As the government has grown, the number of orders, opinions, manuals, and interpretive statements and instructions that it generates has grown with it, and so have the authoritative statements that reflect an agency's position on legal or policy questions that must be readily available to the public.  Court Decisions Court cases concerning agencies' obligations to place materials in Reading Rooms illustrate the breadth of this mandate. The courts have held that agencies cannot limit the opinions made available under this provision to decisions in formal adjudicatory hearings; decisions based on examination of an informal, paper record must also be indexed and made available to the public.(5) Moreover, an agency cannot limit its indices of opinions and orders that the agency considers to be precedential: it does not matter if the agency maintains that it will never cite or rely on the decision in the future.(6) Additionally, this requirement is also not limited to orders, policies or interpretations issued by the head of the agency — it reaches statements issued by any officer of the agency, at any level, if the official has been delegated authority to decide the issue. The requirement also applies where the official's decision has legal effect, but may be subject to further review or appeal.(7) Moreover, the courts have held that records that reflect "negative" agency decisions (decisions not to take action) must also be indexed and made available. For example, the Supreme Court held that memoranda explaining why National Labor Relations Board officials choose to not bring a complaint when a private party files a labor relations charge with the Board are "final" dispositions that must be indexed and made available under this mandate.(8) The obligation to index administrative manuals, instructions to staff and statements of policy or interpretation has also been held to apply to a wide range of material such as other agency directives in memoranda that supplement training manuals, formal policy directives, or informal correspondence.(9) Limitations on the requirement to index records have also been made by past judicial interpretations. Decisions that do not have legal effect by themselves, but are recommendations to other officials or bodies, need not be indexed under this provision. Portions of records that are covered by one of the FOIA's nine exemptions need not be released, including those portions of manuals that could be used to be used to evade law enforcement if disclosed because they reveal investigative tactics. On the other hand, the portions of the manuals or statements that do not contain such material must be indexed and made available.(10) Agencies may not be fully aware of their responsibilities under the new E-FOIA mandates. To ensure full compliance with this obligation, agencies need to review their procedures for issuing manuals, instructions, policy statements and decisions to ensure that new directives and opinions, and amendments to old ones, are incorporated into the agency's indices and made available in electronic form. And the Department of Justice needs to issue — and follow up on — guidance in these matters, making sure that agencies are fully aware of and working actively to comply with their responsibilities. Repeatedly Requested Records The 1996 amendments also mandated that a new category of records be made available to the public online. "Repeatedly Requested" records (created on or after November 1, 1996) that have been processed and released in response to a FOIA request that "the agency determines have become or are likely to become the subject of subsequent requests for substantially the same records" must be made available online. If these records could not be accessed online by November 1, 1997, they were required to be made available through other electronic means, such as disk or CD-ROM by the November 1, 1997 deadline. As with reading room materials, this requirement represents a significant expansion of the responsibilities of federal agencies to make information available online. The "repeatedly requested" records need not be formal or authoritative agency pronouncements.(11) Nor is it up to the agency to decide if it is interested in disseminating the information; it depends solely on whether outsiders submit multiple requests for this information. Any memoranda, reports, studies, lists, tables, correspondence and other information that is of sufficient interest to the public to spark two or more request must be placed in the agency's reading room and, if created since November 1, 1996, must be made available electronically and in such a way that anyone with online access will enjoy the same informational access. Index of Previously Released Records Agencies are required to make an index of all previously released records — both those recently created that are available electronically and those that may be only in paper format — that have been or are likely to be the subject of additional requests. This index is to be available online by December 31, 1999. Reference Guides The 1996 amendments created a new set of agency requirements to aid the public in accessing federal government information. By March 31, 1997, each agency was to provide, in its reading room and through an electronic site,(12) reference material or a guide on how to request records from the agency. This reference guide must include:
  • an index of all major information systems of the agency;
  • a description of major information and record locator systems maintained by the agency; and
  • a handbook for obtaining various types and categories of public information from the agency, both through FOIA requests and through non-FOIA means.
Electronic Records In addition, the 1996 amendments explicitly state that records maintained by the agency in electronic form are subject to the FOIA. For example, if an agency maintains an electronic database of information, a citizen may request the agency to search that database for requested information and produce an electronic copy of the entries that are responsive to the citizen's request. An agency is required, moreover, to "make reasonable efforts to maintain its records in forms or formats that are reproducible for the purposes of the [FOIA]." OMB Guidance on E-FOIA GILS The legislative history shows that Congress expected OMB to give guidance on the reference guides, and OMB is responsible, because of its duties under the Paperwork Reduction Act, for providing formal guidance to agencies regarding the implementation of the new FOIA provisions. On April 7, 1997, OMB distributed a memorandum to agencies on how to fulfill the March 31, 1997 requirements for a paper and online Freedom of Information index and guide.(13) Not only was the memo distributed a full week after the deadline for completion of this task, guidance from OMB on these significant new amendments was minimal. To fulfill the index requirements, OMB recommended "establishing a Government Information Locator Service (GILS) presence," in accordance with a 1994 OMB Bulletin. While we agree with OMB that all agencies should have a well maintained GILS, this alone does not fulfill the more substantial E-FOIA amendment requirements. The 1994 OMB Bulletin on GILS instructed agencies to "compile an inventory" of their "automated information systems," "Privacy Act systems of records," and "locators that together cover all...information dissemination products," and describe each of these three by "GILS Core locator records...made available online."(14) The E-FOIA, however, does not limit agency reference guides to "automated information systems" but, rather, requires an index of "all major information systems," a much broader category of information.(15) Secondly, OMB has instructed agencies that GILS must include locators for "information dissemination products" which, in their guidelines, include only locators for catalogs of information disseminated to the public. E-FOIA, on the other hand, does not use this strict definition, including locators for records that are not currently disseminated to the public. Finally, entire classes of information — automated electronic mail and word processing systems — are exempted from GILS, but were specifically included in the E-FOIA legislation. Therefore, agencies who follow OMB's advice of using the GILS to fulfill their obligations fall far short of meeting the E-FOIA amendments.(16) Moreover, as noted in our report,(17) there is uneven and inadequate agency compliance with GILS — and no OMB enforcement of the GILS mandate. Guides OMB also suggested that agencies create a guide for obtaining FOIA information. OMB explained that this guide should include:
  • the location of reading rooms within the agency and its major field offices;
  • a brief description of the types and categories of information available in these reading rooms;
  • the location of the agency's World Wide Web home page;
  • a reference to the agency's FOIA regulations and how to get a copy; and
  • a reference to the agency's Freedom of Information Act annual report and how to get a copy.(18)
Department of Justice Guidance on E-FOIA It is noteworthy that Congress apparently gave little thought in the passage of the E-FOIA amendments to the breadth of their requirements, or to the resources — technological and human — needed to meet them. As Michael Tankersley of Public Citizen puts it, "Not surprisingly, many agencies are understandably hesitant to divert resources to acquiring better computer telecommunications facilities to provide electronic access to records that the agency itself does not want to disseminate, but is now required to make available because the records are repeatedly requested under the FOIA."(19) He notes that, In response to agency concerns, the Department of Justice has urged agencies to construe the new law to limit the agency records that must be made available on-line to those records that have be created by the agency itself. Although the statute states that this requirement applies to "records created on or after November 1, 1996," the Justice Department maintains that "created" should be read to mean "created by the agency" and, therefore, records that "were generated elsewhere and were merely obtained by" the agency "should not be regarded as subject to the new electronic availability requirement.(20) Finally, Tankersley comments that this effort to read a major limitation into the statute is certain to give rise to disputes, and that neither the statutory language nor the legislative history support the Department's position: "After all, if Congress had intended to limit this provision to records created `by the agency,' it could have done so, but it did not."(21) Efforts to Encourage Compliance The Department of Justice has an obligation under E-FOIA to report to Congress on its efforts to ensure agencies' compliance with this law. The Department includes information on its efforts in its Annual Report to Congress.(22) The categories of effort were:
    (a) Counseling and Consultations; (b) FOIA Update (a quarterly FOIA policy publication); (c) Policy Memoranda; (d) Research and Reference Publications; (e) Training; (f) Briefings; and (g) Congressional and Public Inquiries.
On December 4, 1997, Public Citizen, a nonprofit public interest organization, filed a federal lawsuit to enforce the E-FOIA. Seven federal agencies — the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Administration in the Executive Office of the President, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, the Department of Justice, and the Department of State — were sued for failure to comply with the E-FOIA requirements. The outcome of this litigation has yet to be decided in federal court.(23) II. OMB Watch Study Methodology Over a three month period between September and November 1999, we examined 144 unique federal government E-FOIA web sites. Some E-FOIA web sites represented entire agencies, while others reflected an agency division or department. The agencies, departments, bureaus and commissions for this study were selected from the Department of Justice "other agencies" site.(24) In each case, we searched for the ability to find and use, and for the completeness of, four major categories of information required under the 1996 E-FOIA amendments:
  • Records including Federal Register notices, any final opinions and orders in adjudicated cases; statements of policy and interpretations that are not published in the Federal Register; and administrative staff manuals and instructions to staff that affect a member of the public. We looked for the online availability of these documents if created after November 1, 1996 and indexes and access information for those created previous to that date.
  • An index of all major information systems and description of records locators;
  • A FOIA guide detailing how to request records from the agency;
  • An electronic reading room that contains the information listed above as well as repeatedly requested records created after November 1, 1996.
In all cases, we approached the web sites from the perspective of an average member of the public searching for information. Our presumption was that an average person should not have to guess at what terms mean or how an agency might classify its information, and should not have to search an agency's entire web site to find FOIA-related information — that everything required by the amendments should be accessible through one spot on the agency's web site. Thus, for instance, if there was not a FOIA button on the agency home page, we considered this a "No." We did not consider pointing to a GILS browser compliant with the requirement for indexing information systems or describing records locators. Nor did we consider them in compliance if, for instance, their FOIA guide points to the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) or to the agency rules in the Federal Register. The intent of the Act is clearly to make access to this information easy on the public; requiring them to read the CFR is not responsive to that intent. Although OMB has indicated that these practices are acceptable, we did not consider agencies that adopted them to be in compliance with the intent of the law. Our research focused exclusively on whether agencies have made the materials required by E-FOIA available on the Internet; it did not examine if agencies have made these materials available in other formats or media. It also did not examine compliance in response time, nor compliance with provision of the records in the format requested by the FOIA requestor. It is important to note that we looked at agencies and agency components that are listed on the DOJ site — those that have made at least a mininal gesture toward compliance. There are many more government entities that are not listed there. While it was beyond the scope of this study to investigate these entities, they should be scrutinized by the DOJ and by Congress. Unlike our first report on the implementation of the E-FOIA amendments, this study did not note (for reporting purposes) notable practices — good or bad — on individual agency or component web sites. We hope to do a follow-up report on those aspects next year. III. OMB Watch Study Results Complying with E-FOIA Requirements _ Letter and Spirit Of the 144 agency, department and bureau web sites examined, as of November 24, 1999, no agency fulfilled all of the 1996 amendment requirements and 7 have no useful electronic FOIA presence.(25) The break-out of the agencies is available in Table 1. Finding E-FOIA Information Online A first concern for a member of the public looking for agency information that might be of use in her research is how to identify what information an agency has and how it goes about making that information available. In terms of E-FOIA, this means that the citizen must first know or be able to learn that FOIA exists. Ninety (of 144) web sites have a hot button on the agency/component home page that leads directly to the FOIA/E-FOIA page. No E-FOIA Information Available All of the sites we examined had some reference to FOIA (which is to be expected as they derived from the DOJ site). What is startling to realize is the number of departmental components and agencies that are not listed on the Department of Justice site. (For a partial list of executive branch components, see Appendix B.) A cursory examination of some department and agency sites indicated that there is minimal E-FOIA information at some non-listed web sites (such as the International Trade Administration and the Patent and Trademark Office in the Department of Commerce) but examining all sites not listed at DOJ was beyond the scope of this study. OMB Guidance OMB's suggestions in its April 7, 1997 Memorandum -- and in its April 23, 1998 "Updated Guidance" continue to fall far short of what is needed to fulfill E-FOIA. OMB seems to have overlooked the intent of the E-FOIA legislation — to provide easier access to government information electronically. Providing an address or phone number for more information, as OMB suggests, only lengthens the search process for citizens. Requiring the public to look up the agency's regulations — even if an electronic link is provided — is also not responsive to the intent of the legislation. Nothing less than providing the actual "how to" guide online at one agency site fulfills the intent of the amendments. OMB continues to disappoint in matters of access. From its continued lack of enforcement of — or apparent interest in — the Government Information Locator Service to its inadequate and, for some agencies misleading, E-FOIA advice to agencies, OMB's actions reflect a pattern of apathy toward public access to government information. Decentralized Responsibility Four large agencies examined for this study — the Departments of Justice, Treasury, Interior, and the Environmental Protection Agency — have decentralized E-FOIA obligations to smaller departments, bureaus or regions within their larger organizations. Because meeting the E-FOIA requirements is a difficult and time consuming task, decentralization of this responsibility seems a useful solution. When some departments or bureaus ignore their decentralized responsibility, however, this plan leads to uneven compliance across these agencies. While some departments within agencies have taken the responsibility quite seriously and complied fully, others have met only some requirements, and still others have entirely ignored their obligations. Because of this uneven information dissemination, in most cases of decentralization, it seems as if the parent agency has taken a hands-off approach, leaving each department or bureau to fend for itself. In the case of the Department of Justice (DOJ), each department or bureau has an individual electronic reading room established, but did not necessarily meet all E-FOIA amendment requirements.(26) The Department of Transportation (DOT), like the DOJ, has decentralized its E-FOIA responsibility; in the process, uneven access to information resources online has been permitted. Like DOJ, DOT has centralized some of its E-FOIA information, like the guide and index, but has left other requirements to individual departments that have, in many cases, not fulfilled their obligations. What E-FOIA Information Is Available? FOIA Guides to Requesting Information The E-FOIA amendments require each agency to create a guide for the public detailing how to request information. While many agencies have provided an online guide, the best agency E-FOIA web sites also explain the rights guaranteed to the public through the FOIA and its amendments. They clearly articulate not only how to go about requesting information, but also what information can and cannot be accessed under the FOIA and E-FOIA (as required in the amendments). This kind of clear language is necessary in providing meaningful public access to federal government information. Many FOIA web sites, however, contain legal or bureaucratic language to describe their guides, index and information holdings online. Seven of the sites examined appear to have followed OMB guidance in this area, to ill effect for the public. Indexes The 1996 E-FOIA amendments require that agencies provide an index of all major information systems. Thirteen of the sites have failed to meet this requirement because they followed OMB's guidance and used their GILS as their E-FOIA index or description of their records locators. As discussed earlier, the GILS describes "automated information systems" but does not provide "an index of all major information systems of the agency" nor "a description of major information and record locator systems maintained by the agency" as required by E-FOIA. As a result many agencies have fallen short in this area. It is also often difficult to determine what online indexes are describing. No agency defines what is meant by "major information system," so the public has no way of knowing what is not indexed — and why. Electronic Reading Rooms and "Repeatedly Requested" Records Under E-FOIA, online Electronic Reading Rooms should include final opinions from agency adjudications, agency policy statements and interpretations adopted by the agency that are not published in the Federal Register, a guide on how to request information, and an index of all major information systems and a description of these and of the agency's records locators. While many electronic reading rooms exist, none contain all of this information. Most contain a guide but very few contain an index of information systems and even fewer a description of the agency's records locators systems. Fewer than 30% of the sites examined contained FOIA-released repeatedly requested documents in addition to these other items. Many agency web sites with an electronic reading room, moreover, have guides or indexes outside the reading room, and other "documents" within it. It is, therefore, often difficult to understand the connection between the reading room and the E-FOIA requirements explained in the guide. Quite often, the process by which information is selected for posting remains a mystery and this information's relationship to the E-FOIA cannot be identified. Are these documents repeatedly requested by members of the public? Are they documents frequently requested by the public — but not through FOIA? The latter appears to be the case frequently. This information is useful, but it does not belong in the FOIA repeatedly-requested records site. IV. Policy Recommendations 1. OMB must provide clear guidance to agencies that fulfills both the letter and intent of the E-FOIA amendments. To make this guidance effective, OMB must also develop a plan for how E-FOIA fits into the overall framework of federal information policy and, in particular, public access. 2. Congress must allocate appropriate levels of funding for ongoing implementation of the E-FOIA amendments. It is difficult for agencies to make E-FOIA a priority when monies must be diverted from other important projects. 3. Congress must search for new ways to ensure implementation of these amendments through an enforcement mechanism. Currently, agencies who are not in compliance are not penalized. 4. Agencies with decentralized responsibility for E-FOIA implementation must provide a procedure for the implementation of E-FOIA . While we are mindful of the organizational need to decentralize responsibility for E-FOIA, this approach adds additional risk to comprehensive implementation. If "parent" agencies continue to take a "hands off" approach to E-FOIA obligations, the public will continue to receive uneven access to information across the agencies. 5. Agencies must make categories of E-FOIA compliance — handbooks, indexes, repeatedly requested records — easily identifiable online and linked from one spot. While the findings of this study are critical of E-FOIA compliance overall, information to fulfill E-FOIA requirements may very well be available online, but could not be located because it was not clearly identified. 6. All agencies should follow the lead of those that provide forms for submitting FOIA requests online. 7. All agencies should provide access to their information in text-only as well as graphics versions for users without access to high-tech equipment. Although flashy web sites often get the most attention, they are not always the most user-friendly. 8. The goal of E-FOIA should be to make so much information publicly available online that Freedom of Information Act requests become an avenue of last resort. V. Tabular Study Results Agency FOIA Handbook/ Guide Index of Major Information Systems/ Records Locators Compliant Electronic Reading Room  Agency Handbooks, Adjudications Opinions, etc. Identifiable FOIA-Released Repeatedly Requested Documents FOIA link on agency  home page1 Department of Agriculture Yes No/No No2 No No No Department of Commerce No20 No/No No No No No National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Yes No11/No Partially4 Yes6 Yes3 No Department of Defense (DefenseLink) Yes6 No11/No No6 Centralized6 Yes + GILS Yes United States Air Force No No/No Decentralized No12 No No United States Army No8 No/No No No12 No3 No United States Marine Corp Yes No/No No Partial No No United States Navy Yes No/No Yes6 No12 No No National Imagery & Mapping Agency Yes6 No/No No No12 No4 Yes National Reconnaissance Office Yes6 No/No Partially4 Links to Central Yes13 Yes National Security Agency Yes No/No Partially4 Links to Central Yes13 No Department of Education Yes Yes/Yes Yes Yes No No Department of Energy Yes No/No No Yes No3 No Department of Health & Human Services Yes No/No No No No Yes Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry Yes Yes/Yes Yes No No No Centers for Disease Control Yes No/Yes No No No3 Yes Food and Drug Administration Yes No/No Yes Yes Yes No Health Care Finance Adminstration Yes No/No No No No Yes Department of Housing and Urban Development Yes No/No No No No No Agency FOIA Handbook/ Guide Index of Major Information Systems/ Records Locators Compliant Electronic Reading Room  Agency Handbooks, Adjudications Opinions, etc. Identifiable FOIA-Released Repeatedly Requested Documents FOIA link on agency  home page1 Department of the Interior Yes No/No Yes Partial4 Yes Yes Bureau of Indian Affairs Yes No/No No Partial4 Yes Yes Bureau of Land Management Yes No/No Yes Partial4 Yes No Bureau of Reclamation No No/No Yes Partial4 Yes Yes Minerals Management Service Yes No/No No Partial4 Yes Yes National Park Service No No/No Yes14 Partial4 Yes No Office of Surface Mining Yes No/No Partially Partial4,6 No3 No U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Yes No/No No No No No U.S. Geological Survey Yes No11/No Yes Partial4 No No Department of Justice Yes Yes/No Decentralized Decentralized No3 Yes Antitrust Division Centralized Yes/No Yes Yes Yes Yes Bureau of Prisons Yes No/No No No5 No3 Yes Civil Division Centralized Yes/No Partially No5 Yes Yes Civil Rights Division Centralized Yes/No Partially No5 Yes Yes Community Oriented Policing Centralized Yes/No Yes No5 Yes5 Yes Community Relations Service Centralized No/No Partially No5 Yes5 Yes Criminal Division Centralized Yes/No Partially Partial5,6 Yes5 Yes Drug Enforcement Admin. Centralized Yes/No Yes Partial4 Yes5 Yes Environment and Natural Resource Division Centralized Yes/No Partially No5 Yes5 Yes Executive Office for Immigration Review Centralized Yes/No Yes Partial4 Yes7 Yes Executive Office for United States Trustees Centralized Yes/No Yes Yes6 Yes3 Yes Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys Centralized Yes/No Yes Partial4,6 Yes5 Yes Federal Bureau of Investigation Centralized Yes/No No No No3 Yes Foreign Claims Settlement Commission Centralized Yes/No Partially No5 Yes Immigration & Naturalization Service Yes Yes/No Yes Yes No Yes Interpol - U.S. National Central Bureau Centralized No/No No2 No No Yes Justice Management Division Centralized Yes/No Partially No5 Yes Yes Office of the Attorney General Centralized Yes/No No2 No Yes Yes Office of the Deputy Attorney General Centralized Yes/No No2 9 Yes5 Yes Agency FOIA Handbook/ Guide Index of Major Information Systems/ Records Locators Compliant Electronic Reading Room  Agency Handbooks, Adjudications Opinions, etc. Identifiable FOIA-Released Repeatedly Requested Documents FOIA link on agency  home page1 Office of the Associate Attorney General Centralized Yes/No No2 No5 Yes5 Yes Office of Community Oriented Policing Centralized No/No No4 Yes Yes Yes Office Information and Privacy Centralized Yes/No No4 No9 Yes5 Yes Office of Intergovernmental Affairs Centralized Yes/No No2 No Yes5 Yes Office of Inspector General Centralized Yes/No No2 No No Yes Office of Intelligence Policy and Review Centralized Yes/No No2 No5 Yes Yes Office of Justice Programs No Yes/No No4 No5 No3 Yes Office of Legal Counsel Centralized Yes/No No2 No5 Yes Yes Office of Legislative Affairs Centralized Yes/No No2 No5 Yes5 Yes Office of the Pardon Attorney Centralized Yes/No No2 No5 Yes5 Yes Office of Professional Responsibility Centralized Yes/No No2 No5 Yes5 Yes Office of Public Affairs Centralized Yes/No No2 No9 Yes5 Yes Office of Policy Development Centralized Yes/No No No Yes5 Yes Office of Solicitor General Centralized Yes/No No2 No Yes5 Yes Tax Division Centralized Yes/No No2 No5 Yes5 Yes United States Marshals Service Centralized Yes/No10 No2 Partial4,6 Yes6 Yes United States Parole Commission Yes Yes/No No2 Yes6 Yes5 Yes Department of Labor Yes No/No No2 No Yes Yes Department of State Yes No/Yes Yes No No Yes Department of Transportation Yes Yes/No Decentralized No No Yes Federal Aviation Administration Yes No/No No No No Yes Federal Highway Administration Centralized No/No No2 No No Yes Surface Transportation Board No No/No No Yes No Yes U.S. Coast Guard No No/No No No No Yes Agency FOIA Handbook/ Guide Index of Major Information Systems/ Records Locators Compliant Electronic Reading Room  Agency Handbooks, Adjudications Opinions, etc. Identifiable FOIA-Released Repeatedly Requested Documents FOIA link on agency  home page1 Department of Treasury Yes No/No Yes Partial4 Yes No Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Yes No11/No No2 No No No Bureau of Public Debt Yes No/No No No NoTD> No Federal Law Enforcement Training Center Yes6 Yes6/No Yes6 No2 No Yes Financial Management Service No19 Yes/No Yes No Yes Yes Internal Revenue Service No No/No No No No No Office of Comptroller of the Currency Yes No/No No No No No8 Office of Thrift Supervision Yes No/No No No Yes Yes U.S. Customs Service Yes No/No No No No Yes U.S. Secret Service No19 No/No No No No No Department of Veteran's Affairs Yes Yes11/No Yes Partial4 Yes Yes Agency for International Development Yes No/No No Partial4 No8 Yes AMTRAK Yes No/No No No No Yes Central Intelligence Agency Yes No/No No No No3 Yes Commodity Futures Trading Commission Yes No/No Yes Yes No3 Yes Agency FOIA Handbook/ Guide Index of Major Information Systems/ Records Locators Compliant Electronic Reading Room  <
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