New FOIA portal promotes transparency, eases agency interactions

Tuesday - 10/2/2012, 6:15am EDT

Sean Moulton, director of federal information policy, OMB Watch on "In Depth with Francis Rose"

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Miriam Nisbet, director, Office of Government Information Services, National Archives, on "Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp"

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The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Department of Commerce (DoC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) teamed up to to launch an online portal Monday, where members of the public can submit and track Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and agencies can consult with other agencies on those processing requests.

FOIAonline, previously known as the FOIA Module, allows the public to communicate with FOIA officers processing a request. They can also search through other requests and responsive documents that have already been released.

FOIAonline offers many benefits for agencies. Consultations can take place within the system, so the manual transfer of documents is no longer required. Agencies are able to create invoices, post responses, generate metrics and manage reports. They can also use the portal to generate their annual FOIA reports.

Once a request has been processed, the requester is notified that the documents have been posted to FOIAonline. These documents are then available to anyone who conducts a search on the website.

"FOIAonline represents a major advance in bringing the federal freedom of information system into the 21st century," Katherine McFate, president and CEO of OMB Watch said in a press release.

According to McFate, OMB Watch, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization promoting openness and transparency in government, has been advocating for tools like FOIAonline for years. "We're pleased the government has put this centralized website in place," she said.

FOIAonline grew out of EPA's efforts in 2010 to leverage the infrastructure of the federal government's rulemaking portal, Regulations.gov. This helped to keep start-up costs at a relatively low $1.3 million. Annual operating costs are estimated at between $500,000 to $750,000.

In addition, if the the website is broadly adopted, the effort could save an estimated $200 million over five years.

So far, three other agencies have partnered with EPA, DoC and NARA to develop and deploy FOIAonline: the Department of the Treasury, the Federal Labor Relations Authority and the Merit Systems Protection Board. Each of these agencies will deploy the website on their own timetable.

"FOIAonline should prove to be a powerful tool for transparency," McFate said in the press release. She encouraged other agencies to adopt the portal.

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