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The Public Needs a FOIA Portal

In a recent letter we and several of our partners sent to the Administration, we said that the FOIA Portal under development by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with assistance from the Department of Commerce and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), is the "best hope for improving the administration’s compliance with the FOIA and affording the public the broadest access to government documents." Here are some of the reasons we think the public needs the FOIA Portal:

  • Easier to Make Requests. The FOIA Portal will provide a single simple interface that the public can use to make requests to any participating agency. Most agencies do already accept FOIA requests online -- in fact, there are currently more than 100 separate online systems across the federal government where the public can submit requests -- but requests to multiple agencies must be made individually and the required format for the requests varies significantly. The FOIA Portal will eliminate this needless complexity for users.
  • Cuts Down on Delays. By encouraging users to provide an email address, the FOIA Portal will make it easier for the agency to communicate electronically with the requester, reducing mail delays. Additionally, referrals and consultations would all be done electronically within the system.
  • Users Can Track Requests. Once a request is made, the system automatically assigns tracking numbers to requests. Requesters can use these numbers to automatically see where the request is in the process.
  • Better Public Access to Released Documents. Any document released in response to a request through the FOIA Portal (with the exception of personal information) will automatically be available to everyone. Agencies currently post "frequently requested documents" (defined as requested three times) in their FOIA reading rooms. In practical terms, that means a FOIA reviewer working at the agency must correspond with at least three separate requesters and review responsive records at least three times before anything is made available to the general public. Releasing all documents after one review could cut down on the number of requests made, and free up FOIA reviewers time to begin making real progress on getting through backlogs.
  • Saves Taxpayer Funding. The government is currently paying millions of dollars per year to support the upkeep and management of several different programs that help agencies manage their FOIA requests. The FOIA Portal is being built on the cost-sharing model of the EPA's Regulations.gov, which all agencies are already using to manage the rule-making process. The project has also been able to leverage Regulation.gov's existing infrastructure to keep start-up costs low. Assuming government-wide adoption of the FOIA Portal, the project is projected to save as much as $200 million over the next five years.

Learn more about the FOIA Portal by checking out these slides from a panel at the American Society of Access Professionals' (ASAP) recent National Traning Conference.

What's the Difference between the FOIA Portal and FOIA.gov?

As described above, the FOIA Portal is a management tool for agencies that builds in public access to records. The public will use the FOIA Portal to make requests and find records that have been released under the FOIA. Prior to making a request, users can search to see if the documents they want have already been released under the FOIA. If the documents have not been released, the user fills out a standardized template that can be sent simultaneously to any agency participating in the project. After the request is made, users can log back in to check on the status of their request and retrieve any released documents.

Of course, how much the FOIA Portal really simplifies making requests for users depends on the number of agencies that participate in the system, and the extent to which DOJ cooperates with the Portal's developers. A requester will only get all of the benefits of the Portal (the ability to make and track requests and get documents) if the agency they are making the request to is using the system. With DOJ's assistance, at least some of the system's benefits could also extend to all agencies -- regardless of whether or not they are participating. For example, if DOJ encourages agencies to adopt a standard online FOIA request form, the FOIA Portal could be easily set up to allow a requester to make a single request to all or any combination of agencies across the federal government. 

FOIA.gov is an accountability and education tool. The site was originally conceived in Version 1 of the Department of Justice's (DOJ) Open Government Plan as a way to make the statistics DOJ annually collects from agencies on FOIA compliance easily available to Congressional overseers, journalists, researchers, advocates and any member of the public who is simply interested in knowing how the government is implementing the FOIA. Before the launch of the Dashboard, DOJ expanded the concept of the site to also include features that teach the public about the FOIA.

The FOIA Portal and FOIA.gov are two sides of the same coin. Our letter in support of the FOIA Portal suggested that the FOIA Portal should be integrated with the Department of Justice's FOIA.gov to make more precise and granular reporting data available.

The Classified Section

Check out our new blog, The Classified Section, for analysis of national security secrecy.

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