Great Expectations and Growing Pains for FOIAonline – April 2, 2013 Newsletter

In This Issue:
News from Coalition Partners & Others
I. Great Expectations and Growing Pains for FOIAonline
II. Take Action to Support Open Government

News from Coalition Partners & Others

Important Win by CREW on FOIA Processing

Our friends at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) won a major victory today in their ongoing case against the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) that will help maintain what the ruling refers to as the "comprehensive scheme" in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that "encourages prompt request-processing and agency accountability." At issue was the FEC's claim that it met its responsibility under the FOIA to make a determination on a request within 20 business days by advising the requester the agency intends to comply with the request at some point. If the FEC had prevailed, FOIA requesters could have been left in limbo for months, or possible years, with no access to judicial review.

Groups File Brief Fighting Secret Law and several other partners joined Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) in a brief supporting the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s fight against the Department of Justice’s insistence that OLC Opinions must be kept secret under FOIA. In EFF v. the United States Department of Justice, EFF challenges the withholding of OLC opinions and partial reliance on Exemption 5 and its protection for material that falls within the deliberative process and attorney client privileges. The OLC opinion at issue is one example of the growing body of secret law. As the amicus brief points out, the public must have access to authoritative interpretations of the law, like the OLC's memo on federal surveillance authorities, in order for us to have an informed debate about the government's policies, and build a shared understanding of the rule of law. Learn more about the filing here.

US PIRG Takes an In-Depth Look at State Spending Transparency

All fifty states now provide some level of checkbook-level spending information online, according to a report by the US PIRG. Just four years ago, only 32 states provided information at this level. Forty eight states’ spending information is searchable—Vermont and California lag behind. Read the education fund’s annual survey of state transparency websites for even more insight into the changing faces of state spending transparency.

Groups Support Bill to Make Agency Reports Accessible

More than 20 partners and other allies joined in endorsing HR 1380, the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act, a bill that would make the thousands of reports federal agencies are required to submit to Congress each year easily available. Currently these reports, which include valuable information about what agencies are doing and how they are spending taxpayer dollars, end up collecting dust on a staffer's shelf or are posted in an obscure section of the agency's website. HR 1380 requires any report issued to Congress or its committees and releasable under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to be posted on a website managed by the US Government Printing Office (GPO).

I. Great Expectations and Growing Pains for FOIAonline

As many of our readers know, we think that the FOIAonline requester and management system has great potential. This fall we decided to test those expectations by launching a project comparing the requester experience of FOIAonline and the disparate systems of the 14 agencies that receive the highest number of requests each year. Assistant Director Amy Bennett graded FOIAonline’s performance in January — awarding FOIAonline grades ranging from A+ for the ease of making a request to a D – F for not making it easy for the public to access the records once they were processed and released. Since then, the project has had some more particularly interesting results:

  • FOIAonline's search function continues to struggle — Requesters are supposed to be able to use key words to find documents that the participating agencies have already released to other requesters. We could not find the document EPA released to us using a variety of terms, or even using the request's tracking number.
  • Agencies are experiencing growing pains in using the system. As Amy wrote, “from the original three requests I made using FOIAonline, I now have one envelope with a paper copy of a report, one electronic version of a report available online, and two emails with electronic versions of reports attached.” The status shown in a requester’s account often does not reflect the true status of the request.
  • Electronic is still the way to go. FOIAonline has hiccups, but the other processing experiences are equally, if not more, flawed. The records requested from the Department of State arrived in a large package with postage costing $16 dollars, five and a half months after the request was made. We were lucky—that’s still under the 155 working-day average it takes State to process a simple request.

II. Take Action to Support Open Government

Please stop by our Action Center to learn how you can help us support legislation that would make the government more open and accountable, and ask your legislators to oppose bills that threaten our right to know.

Current opportunities to participate include asking your Member to cosponsor bills that provide free online access to CRS reports and make the thousands of reports agencies submit to Congress every year easily accessible. We also have an alert that lets you warn your Member about a provision in the House cyber bill, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), that threatens to blow a hole in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and ask that they pass a bill that both protects our cyber systems and open government.

Do you have a suggestion for another action alert? Email us at

Categories: Uncategorized