Almost five and a half years ago we at OGIS recommended to Congress that the development of a governmentwide FOIA web portal could improve public access to government information. Now, thanks to ongoing collaboration between the Office of Management and Budget (OMB and the Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice (DOJ) and 18F, the digital services agency within the General Services Administration, we are closer than ever to having a National FOIA Portal.
Along with recommending the creation of the unified portal, OGIS was an early promoter of the effort to develop and expand FOIAonline, a multi-agency web platform that accepts FOIA requests, stores them in a repository for processing by agency staff, and allows an agency to post the released records in a centralized FOIA e-reading room. As we emphasized at the time, FOIAonline improved the experience for requesters, and saved taxpayers’ money by sharing agency resources and repurposing existing technology. FOIAonline also reduces the administrative burden on agencies since requester contact information is automatically stored in the system, and agencies can use the portal to communicate with the requester. Six of the 100-odd federal agencies that accept FOIA requests were a part of the FOIAonline launch, including part of the National Archives. As shown in 18F’s research while developing the National FOIA Portal, 10 percent of agencies now participate in FOIAonline, representing 17 percent of the total volume of requests processed by the federal government.
While FOIAonline has been a useful solution for its partners, we recognize that other agencies have found tools that they see as a better fit for their agencies’ needs and priorities. As 18F’s research also shows, in addition to FOIAonline, federal agencies have developed and maintain a variety of other online solutions to accept and manage FOIA requests. Their research also shows that a substantial number of agencies, especially those that process relatively few requests each year, rely on manual processes to take in and manage their FOIA caseload.
In the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, Congress tasked OMB, in consultation with the Attorney General, to ensure the development and operation of a consolidated online request portal, and we were happy to participate in the Cross Agency Priority (CAP) Goal process that moved the National FOIA Portal and a number of other FOIA reforms forward. We are looking forward to seeing and testing the first iteration of 18F’s National FOIA Portal as soon as it is available, and sharing our feedback.