The federal government’s Freedom of Information Act “ombudsman” told a congressional subcommittee a new governmentwide portal could help agencies better manage the hundreds of thousands of FOIA requests they face each year.
The 1996 Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments were designed to modernize the original FOIA laws to include electronic records and to require agencies to post more information online.
But 16 years later, agencies are still working to “fully implement” the new requirements, said Miriam Nisbet, the director of the Office of Government Information Services, in testimony before a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee last week.
The hearing probed how technology could improve the FOIA process — following a lackluster C- grade that the committee gave the administration for its management of FOIA requests.
Nisbet, who joined In Depth with Francis Rose for an interview, told the committee that outdated technology and the particular challenges of managing electronic records continue to pose “obstacles for agencies.”
OGIS, part of the National Archives and Records Administration, operates as a FOIA resource for both the government and the public.
There are 100 departments and agencies within the executive branch, Nisbet said. “And they range from huge, like the Department of Defense and the Department of State, to really tiny agencies,” she added. “So, how they are able to process requests can differ a great deal.”
Overall, there are about 600,000 requests each year. Managing such requests “can be a very labor-intensive process,” Nisbet added.
One-stop shop is next step
OGIS launched a new website and case-management system in October, with the aim of allowing people to track their requests online and helping OGIS employees to better manage their caseloads.
The next step in overhauling FOIA management is a governmentwide online portal — Nisbet called it a “one-stop shop” — for receiving and responding to requests, Nisbet said. It’s a project OGIS and NARA are now working on, in tandem with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Commerce Department.
But the new portal, dubbed the FOIA Module, won’t be built from scratch. Instead, it will be modeled on Regulations.gov, the online repository of information about federal regulations.
Officials at EPA, which manages Regulations.gov, thought: “If we’re able to do this for regulations across the government, why can’t we do it across the government for FOIA requests,” Nisbet said. “So that really got the process going a couple of years ago and now the project is well underway.”
The portal is on track to launch in October, Nisbet said.