National FOIA Portal will reduce work on both sides of federal information requests

Have an opinion on the federal Freedom of Information Act request process?

The Justice Department wants to hear it — and include that feedback into the National FOIA Portal.

DoJ’s Office of Information Policy recently announced a partnership with government innovation lab 18F, to create an online resource that will make the FOIA process easier on both requesters and the offices managing those requests.

“We’ve been saying all along absolutely the portal has to work for both sides of the FOIA process,” said OIP Director Melanie Pustay, during an April 20 National Archives and Records Administration Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee meeting. “We don’t want to just open a fire hose and so it’s really easy to make requests willy-nilly and requesters are like, ‘Good, I fell asleep and made a request.’ That doesn’t help FOIA. The whole idea here is to have the portal help requesters go to the right agency. Ideally, even before that, help requesters find things that are already posted so they don’t need to make a FOIA request and then help agencies be able to handle the requests, intake the requests, more readily group them, that kind of thing.”

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The portal is part of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. Pustay said OIP received about $1.3 million to get the portal off the ground, but more money from the Office of Management and Budget will be needed down the road.

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With the announcement of the portal comes the discovery phase. The process is very open and very dynamic, Pustay said, and OIP set up a dedicated email to take suggestions on what needs and feasible solutions related to FOIA requests.

Pustay said about 15 people had submitted feedback since the email went live.

“A possible feature of the portal … would be the ability to find things that are already posted,” Pustay said. “That all ties in with proactive disclosure efforts that are underway. We’ve said all along it’s great to post things, but then we need to have the public be able to find what’s posted or else it doesn’t really get us anywhere, it doesn’t advance the ball. It’s an obvious aspect that we will certainly be looking at as part of the portal process.”

Ready to start

Pustay said the goal is to have an open process between OIP and 18F.

“The idea here is that … we are going into it with a very open mind and want to listen to what requesters want, what agencies want, and then see what the best way to accommodate those needs are,” Pustay said. “We’re hoping that the portal will help guide the requesters to the right agency, will help the requester locate information already public on a topic and maybe alleviate the need to even make a FOIA request. We want to have it be very easy to see what requirements agencies might have for making a request, particular information you might need to provide to an agency before you make a request so that it achieves efficiencies throughout the process.”

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Pustay said feedback will be collected for about two months, with the goal of launching the initial phase of the portal sometime in calendar 2017.

“Hopefully over time we’ll just continue to build out the capabilities of the portal to build more and more efficiencies into FOIA,” Pustay said. “We’re very optimistic, at this point it’s very exciting because we’ve got the agreement in place and we’re ready to start.”

Another tool in the box

The portal is the latest offering from OIP. In March the office announced a Freedom of Information Act toolkit would be released later in the year. The toolkit will provide agency FOIA offices with self-assessment modules.

The modules allow FOIA offices to decide which areas they want to look at and self-asses. Those modules will include areas like mail intake, website development, customer service and FOIA reporting.