A buzz is growing in the federal Freedom of Information community about a new $1.3 million “FOIA Portal” under development and slated for launch this fall. Thursday we got a chance to look under the hood a bit, as part of a group organized by the Office of Government of Information Services.
The system’s design and development is being led by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Commerce Department, and so far those are the only two agencies that have committed to implementing it. OGIS, housed in the National Archives, also is a partner in the portal project. Other federal agencies are being courted to join the effort. Naturally, it is being sold as a way to bring more efficiency into the often cumbersome and lengthy FOIA process; there are some estimates that if all the departments and agencies signed on it would save $200 million over the next five years.
The aim is to create a system that federal agencies can use to receive, monitor and process FOIA requests. Requesters could use the system to file their FOIA requests and track their progress.
Perhaps the most intriguing feature from a requester’s perspective is the ability to search and retrieve records previously released by the agencies that use the system. The search capacity might reduce the number of requests because multiple requesters wouldn’t have to ask for the same records.
The portal also could make filing a request faster and easier (the screens we saw were nicely designed). Some agencies already have ways to take electronic requests, but this looked much more polished.
While we liked what we saw, we aren’t persuaded that a portal or any device is the solution to the many FOIA problems, including those we’ve written about here at Exemption 10. If it helps the agencies use their resources more efficiently, great. But a portal alone won’t magically increase the amount of money and number of people assigned to comply with FOIA rules. More important, it won’t deal with the most serious shortcoming: The attitude on the part of too many people in government that citizens shouldn’t have full and easy access to information about what the government is doing in their name.
One other thing that the portal could do is to help agencies meet their FOIA reporting requirements. And while we’re on that topic, we noted the other day that only eight of 15 Cabinet-level agencies had met the Feb. 1 deadline for filing the FOIA annual report. We just checked to see if any new ones had been posted this week. Sadly, it doesn’t appear that any have.