Agencies demo one-stop FOIA portal

Thursday - 1/12/2012, 3:47pm EST

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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Federal employees who respond to Freedom of Information Act requests got their first look today at a new web portal designed to improve the efficiency and transparency of their jobs.

When the portal goes live in October, it should "meet all the requirements that any FOIA office big or small would have to deal with," said National Archives and Records Administration's Office of Government Information Services Director Miriam Nisbet in an interview with Federal News Radio.

For example, she said, it is being "built to accommodate all the reporting requirements that agencies have to deal with and do annually for the Department of Justice," which oversees agency compliance with the open-records law.

FOIA by the numbers
  • $1.3 million ... the cost of the new one-stop FOIA portal

  • $200 million ... how much the new system could save over five years if all agencies use it

  • 600,000 ... the typical number of FOIA requests a year

  • 70,000 ... the number of outstanding requests in fiscal-year 2010

The Environmental Protection Agency is leading the $1.3 million effort, with assistance from NARA and the Commerce Department. The agencies are holding demonstrations this month for FOIA professionals across government as they fine-tune the portal. In addition to soliciting feedback, the portal's developers hope to generate enthusiasm across the government for the site, which they expect to debut Oct. 1.

The federal government receives roughly 600,000 FOIA requests a year. While the government's backlog has decreased steadily, there were close to 70,000 outstanding requests in fiscal 2010.

The portal "could potentially help FOIA officers throughout the government be a little more efficient at doing their jobs," said Office of Government Information Services facilitator Kirsten Mitchell.

One feature, she said, would let both FOIA requestors and agencies track the progress of a request in real time.

"When both sides have access to that information, it can prevent disputes," she said.

First governmentwide FOIA tracking system

This would be the first governmentwide FOIA case-management system. It could save up to $200 million over five years if all agencies use it, according to NARA.

The portal would make it easier for agencies to "refer records and consult with other agencies on FOIA requests, which up to now has been a paper process," said Nisbet.

That has been a sore spot for FOIA requestors, who may not know when an agency has passed on their request to another agency. The Justice Department recently released guidance intended to make that interagency process more transparent to requestors.

In addition, Archives launched in November an online case management system to publicly track requests sent to Nisbet's office, which acts as a FOIA ombudsman by investigating delays and facilitating disputes upon request.

EPA is basing the portal on Regulations.gov, which it administers.

While the new site's design is in flux, "certainly, conceptually it will be very similar," to Regulations.gov, Nisbet said.

That's not welcome news for open-government advocates, who have complained that the portal, by which people can read and comment on proposed federal regulations, is cumbersome to use.

"Because they're using this system that we're not the biggest fan of, we're concerned about how usable it will be," said OMB Watch policy analyst Gavin Baker. "But we're not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

"Even if the site is clunky at first, agencies have been responsive to concerns about usability," he added. "If there are problems, we're hopeful that the agencies will address that in future versions."

As the agencies develop the site, Baker said he would advocate for a feature to make it easier for agencies to publish information on their websites after one request, rather than waiting for multiple requests.

Nisbet said the agencies would solicit feedback from the public in the next few months. But she said the site may not change the way people request information.

"Requestors would always be able to go directly to agencies that have the records they're looking for," she said. "But this will help people who don't know where to go-they know what they're looking for but don't know which agency has the records."

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