The co-chairs of the Chief FOIA Officers Council issued a memo recently on FOIA.gov interoperability and the sunsetting of FOIAonline.
The purpose of the memo, sent to Chief FOIA Officers (CFOs) and available online, is three-fold:
- to remind CFOs of the August 2023 deadline by which agencies must ensure that their FOIA portals are interoperable with FOIA.gov;
- to remind CFOs that FOIAonline is decommissioning at the end of FY 2023; and
- to share some best practices of agency customer service flagged by the requester community.
OGIS Director Alina M. Semo and Bobby Talebian, Director of the Office of Information Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice, co-chair the Council.
The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 mandated “the operation of a consolidated online request portal that allows a member of the public to submit a [FOIA] request . . . to any agency from a single website.” The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a joint memorandum, M-19-10, outlining the standards of interoperability for the National FOIA Portal and requiring all agencies to become interoperable by the end of August 2023.
Going forward, agencies must ensure that their systems remain interoperable with FOIA.gov in line with the joint guidance. The memo encourages agencies, if they have not done so already, to add a link to FOIA.gov on the agency’s FOIA website as a helpful resource for requesters.
Decommissioning of FOIAonline
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in November 2021 the decommissioning of FOIAonline effective September 30, 2023. At its height, 22 agencies relied on the FOIAonline platform. At the start of fiscal year (FY) 2023, 17 agencies were still using the platform. As we approach the decommissioning date of September 30, 2023, 11 agencies remain on FOIAonline. EPA is supporting the remaining agency partners in their migration from FOIAonline to new case management systems. The last day FOIAonline can be accessed is September 30, 2023. For FOIAonline partners that have not yet transitioned to a new platform by September 30th, their FOIAonline data will be retained until it can be exported for migration into their new system or a location of their choosing. Agencies must grant authority to their new vendors to migrate the data, including open cases. EPA will ensure data within FOIAonline continues to be secure until the technological dismantling of FOIAonline is complete. Agencies transitioning to new systems should take the appropriate measures to ensure all data is migrated into their new system to preserve efficiencies and ensure accurate reporting.
Best Practices at DHS and State
The memo highlights some best practices at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Department of State (State) that were specifically flagged as examples of great customer service by the requester community.
DHS undertook a recent initiative to proactively engage stakeholders and the public regarding its transition to a new case management system and modernize its system for first-party requests as part of a commitment to open government.
DHS receives the most FOIA requests in the federal government annually—nearly 540,000 in FY 22. In recognition of the potential impact upon requesters from upcoming changes in FOIA procedures, DHS created a webpage that anticipates and responds to frequently asked questions (FAQs) that its FOIA requesters may have about how DHS is transitioning to a new platform for receiving and responding to FOIA requests.
The CFO Council co-chairs anticipate that these FAQs will help to reduce confusion in the requester community, reduce repetitive questions, and mitigate the risk of lost requests or mismanaged cases, saving DHS agencies both time and money. The memo goes on to say that the DHS FAQs provide a useful framework for agencies to create similar FAQs and proactively engage with the FOIA requester community about what to expect when modernizing FOIA systems. The memo also highlights the State Department’s longstanding implementation of a “release to one, release to all” policy and a new online platform which enables requesters to track the status of their requests. The memo encourages CFOs to collaborate with their agency’s Chief Data Officer as a key opportunity to publish open format documents online, including in FOIA Libraries, as mandated by the OPEN Government Data Act of 2018.