Fresh thinking about the FOIA: A guest editorial by Amy Bennett, Assistant Director, OpentheGovernment.org:

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The Obama Administration prides itself on using the power of the Internet to keep the federal government in touch with the public and, in some ways, it has even proven to be fairly good at it.

The White House’s We The People petition site, for example, has given lots of Americans the ability to let the president know what issues are important to them. Petitions on the site have been responsible for release of items of interest ranging from the White House’s recipe for Honey Ale to the administration’s official public stance on the creation of a Star Wars-style Death Star in order to improve the economy.

Those “successes” in this area, however, make it all the more disappointing that the administration has not invested the same kind of technology and ingenuity into answering requests for government information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The FOIA is a system that has been drowning under its own weight for years. Despite a requirement under the law to respond to requests within 20 working days, requesters commonly have to wait much longer, sometimes even years to get documents from agencies. The attorney general and agency heads have been beating the drum on backlog reduction for years, but the number of requests waiting in the line remains stubbornly high.

The system is confusing, too. Except for requesters with intimate knowledge of FOIA and the federal government, simply determining the appropriate place to send a FOIA request can be challenging. Once the request is made, the method of finding the request’s position in the queue differs from agency-to-agency. Agencies still commonly respond to requests for electronic documents with printouts.

Sometimes it is hard not to draw the conclusion that federal agencies are making the system as confusing as possible in the hope that requesters will just go away.

Technology alone cannot fix the FOIA.  But technological tools and creativity, smartly applied, certainly can make it easier for the public to file requests and get government information in a timely fashion and usable format.

It is easy enough to imagine a website where a requester could log on and make requests across the federal government. If the request needed to be transferred to another office that has responsive records, the action could be done within the system. Requesters could correspond with the agency through their accounts. Requesters could be given a due date of when to expect a response to their request. Any documents released could be available through the requester’s account. All documents released under the FOIA could also be available online in a searchable central repository, cutting down on the number of duplicate requests.

It is especially easy to imagine such a system because some agencies in the federal government are already using it.

The system is called FOIAonline and it is currently housed at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The multi-agency Web-application can only be used to make requests at a handful of participating agencies right now, and it is still far from perfect. The “expected due date” for a response, for example, is just the statutory 20-day time limit, which we know many agencies do not achieve. FOIAonline’s developers and supporters within the government have been open about the system’s limitations, however, and are eager to make improvements.

White House backing for FOIAonline would likely jump-start improvements to the Web-application and push more agencies into using the system.

On his first day in office, President Obama committed to creating “unprecedented levels of openness in Government.” To help fulfill that promise, it is time for the Administration to embrace new ways of thinking about how to give the public information they want. It’s time for the White House to embrace FOIAonline.

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