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.

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