A FOIA Portal, Defined

In recent years groups inside and outside of government have created new tools for FOIA administration, such as iFOIA, MuckRock, and FOIA Machine. In addition, the federal government built its own FOIAonline. Local governments, too, are getting into the game.

Many years ago we extolled the virtues of agencies building a system to more efficiently receive, track, process and respond to FOIA requests. And Congress included a portal requirement in legislation  in FOIA Improvement Act of 2016.

FOIA Tools Inside Government

FOIA.gov (built and administered by the Department of Justice Office of Information Policy) currently provides an introduction to FOIA, tutorials on the finer points of making requests, and the annual statistics that agencies compile each year showing how well or not they are keeping up with the volume of FOIA requests, costs, and the use of exemptions. FOIA.gov was not developed to track requests, manage communications or provide responsive information.

FOIAonline was built by the Environmental Protection Agency as re-use of its existing regulations.gov system. “From FOIAonline you can submit FOIA requests to all participating agencies, track the status of requests, search for requests submitted by others, access previously released records, and generate agency-specific FOIA processing reports,” according to the website. When it was first created, it was a novel approach to build a system once that multiple agencies could use to address common challenges. As new agencies came on board, any add-ons developed for that agency became shared with every other agency. About a dozen agencies or parts of agencies now participate.

Commercial systems. Many agencies rely on commercial off-the shelf (COTS) systems such as FOIAxpress to provide their FOIA processing systems from request to response.

FOIA Tools Developed Outside Government

Outside groups have built tools to make using FOIA easier on the public. Years ago, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (disclosure: RCFP is an SGI member and hosts SGI staff) built a FOIA Letter Generator to walk requesters through how to address fees, the format of information sought, and other finer procedural points in a request letter. That tool was widely used by journalists and others.

More recently, RCFP’s iFOIA allows anyone to make and track multiple FOIA requests to any agency. FOIA Machine also helps requesters make and track FOIA requests. And MuckRock helps requesters find material previously released under FOIA, submit new requests and track pending requests.

None of these relatively new FOIA systems provides full functions of a portal the way we envision it. That’s too bad, because such an Amazon-for-FOIA system could clear the desks inside agencies, newsrooms, lawfirms and individual citizens of piles of FOIA processing pain.

What we want

Our vision of a FOIA portal is an electronic system that helps both requesters and agencies use FOIA. A FOIA portal manages the lifecycle of a FOIA request from start to finish. A portal allows requesters to make, track and receive responses to FOIA requests. A portal allows agencies to receive and process requests, coordinate communication between agencies and requesters (including mediation requests with the Office of Government Information Services), manage procedural issues (e.g., fees, appeals) and provide responsive documents.

It can be centralized as a single system or decentralized as a confederation of separate systems that communicate with one another in machine-readable formats.

Here’s how we described our vision of a portal in 2011:

This system would create a centralized, electronic system that would allow anyone with a computer to make a FOIA request, route the request to the right agency and subcomponents within agencies, track the request through the research and review processes, and allow public disclosure of authenticated information to the requester and the public.

The portal should be software-independent and include standards for interoperability. When one agency uncovers in its files potentially responsive documents from another agency and refers those documents to the second agency for review, agency personnel should be able to transfer the request with one click. It should include a search function to allow requesters and agencies to locate responsive records that have already been released. 

Finally, a portal should make the FOIA process more transparent. A portal should include publicly available metrics in real time or nearly real-time on the workflow of a particular request through various processing milestones. Such reporting could include naming the offices responsible for taking action on a FOIA request and their processing history, and agency snapshots, including wait times and other metrics.

Such transparency would provide insight into the bottlenecks, clues into processing problems and accountability to agency offices that have a hand in responding to FOIA requests like never before.

We and others have been talking about this idea for a long time. The Associated Press then-President and CEO alluded to it in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007:

You know, if Brown [UPS] can do it, Red, White, 
and Blue should, too.

Unfortunately, the 2016 FOIA amendments do not require the U.S. government to build a fully functioning portal, only a system for agencies to accept requests. A request-only system will not help end the procedural dead-ends and lost-in-the-mail problems plaguing requesters, including journalists, trying to use FOIA to gain timely disclosures.

Congress and the executive branch should embrace the goal of creating more robust FOIA processing system that should provide much-needed insight into the FOIA process, what works and does not, and what changes will make FOIA work better.

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Note (4/25/2017):This post was edited slightly to reflect passage of the 2016 FOIA Improvement Act, fix typos and correct links.

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