Requesting Records through FOIAonline: Early Observations

Last week OpenTheGovernment.org launched a project to compare the experience of requesting government records using FOIAonline, a recently launched website that allows users who sign up for an account to easily make and track Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests at participating agencies, with other agencies' FOIA systems. (Learn more about FOIAonline and which agencies are participating by checking out our infographic).

We started our project by selecting a type of record we reasonably expect all agencies to have in their possession. We chose to request copies of the report agencies were required to submit to the Archivist and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) pursuant to the Presidential Memorandum on Records Management. We know that a lot of the material in these reports is likely to be exempt under FOIA because it is pre-decisional information (exemption 5), but we thought there might be some interesting differences in how agencies used this discretionary exemption. We made three requests using FOIAonline (at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Merit Service Protection Board (MSPB), and the Department of Commerce). We also made FOIA requests using either the agency's online submission form or via email to the 14 agencies that received the highest number of requests in 2011 (the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, Health and Human Services, Justice, Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Labor, Treasury, State, and Transportation, the Social Security Administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Securities Exchange Commission, and the National Records and Archives Administration (NARA's Office of General Counsel participates in FOIAOnline, other components still use the old system).

We are early into the project, but it is already clear that FOIAonline makes it considerably less hard to manage multiple requests. Logging into our FOIAonline account we see an easy-to-read, sortable chart showing the tracking number of each request, whether or not it has been assigned to the "simple" or "complex" track, the expected due date, and more. As the agency handles the request and new information becomes available, the information automatically populates the chart.

We created a similar spreadsheet to manage our other requests, but the complexity in how each agency handles the request makes it difficult to maintain. For example:

  • Tracking numbers are assigned in a variety of ways: some agencies send an automatically generated email with the number, some email the tracking number in a letter (pdf) from the FOIA processor, one agency– HHS– sends requesters postcards that have been addressed and filled out by hand.
  • We still have not received tracking numbers for about half of our requests.
  • Each agency has a different tracking system. Some are online, some are telephone-based. To find out the kind of status information that is automatically generated on FOIAonline for each of our other requests would be very time consuming.

We have also already discovered that some agencies do not accept appeals online; they must be mailed back to the agency. We have not yet had to file an appeal on FOIAonline, but have been told it can be handled online.

Be sure to check out the blog to keep up with the project. As a side note, we should mention that an agency using FOIAonline was not the first to respond to our request though: that honor goes to NARA, which granted our request for a fee waiver and withheld the document in its entirety (under FOIA Exemption 5 – information that concerns communications within or between agencies).

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