The importance of streamlining agency efforts to fill federal Freedom of Information Act requests was the hot topic at a subcommittee hearing yesterday of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Titled "FOIA in the 21st Century: Using Technology to Improve Transparency in Government," the hearing highlighted both barriers and achievements of FOI programs as agency officials defended government openness. About 25 people attended the hearing, which was held a week after the committee criticized many federal agencies for keeping inadequate FOIA processing records.
"It is clear that agencies continue to make real progress in applying the presumption of openness," said Melanie Pustay, director of the Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice. "For the third year in a row, agencies have shown that they are improving FOIA compliance and increasing transparency."
Last week, during Sunshine Week, the committee released a report card that evaluated 17 Cabinet-level agencies, including the Departments of Justice, Education, Commerce and Homeland Security, on the content contained in each agency's electronic FOIA tracking logs, and the usefulness of each record.
The committee gave the 17 agencies an overall grade of C- for missing vital information, such as the record requester's name or a legally required tracking number for the request.
At the hearing, witnesses gave testimony in support of online portals, such as the FOIA Module being developed by several agencies, as a way to simplify FOIA processing and promote government transparency, making information more accessible all across the board. The module is designed to provide a single stop for all federal agencies where users can track requests, engage in dialogue with the processing staff and search already released information.
"In order to ease the public's navigation across agencies websites, we are encouraging agencies to standardize FOIA websites to ensure that sites are a customer-friendly and efficient way for the public to find FOIA resources," said Miriam Nisbet, director of the Office of Open Government Information Services (OGIS) at the National Archives and Records Administration.
The FOIA Module would act as a "data repository" where records could be quickly located and released to both the information requester and the public simultaneously. The module is a collaboration between the Environmental Protection Agency, OGIS and the Department of Commerce. It is is expected to launch in October.
Sean Moulton, director of Federal Information Policy at OMB Watch, said that while agencies filled FOIA requests at a higher rate last year, he made clear the need for consistency across all agencies to further improve the handling of information requests. Among other things, Moulton called on Congress to require total agency participation in a centralized FOIA database.
Related Reporters Committee resources: