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Feds Turn to Tech to Improve Freedom of Information Act Responses

After coming into office on promises of open government, transparency and accountability, the Obama administration has come under fire from critics who charge that the actions of the executive branch have not lived up to the rhetoric, and that too many of the government's activities remain shrouded in secrecy.

Administration officials, of course, will argue to the contrary, citing, among other factors, the enormous volume of information that has been published on department and agency websites.

There is no disagreement, however, in the potential for technology to improve access to government information, particularly in facilitating requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

"Technology is a valuable tool for promoting transparency," Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Penn.) said at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's technology subcommittee.

Obama Caught on Video

Kelly opened the proceeding with a video clip of remarks that Obama made shortly after taking office, promising that "transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency" and that "information will not be held just because I say so." But Kelly noted the criticism that has surrounded many agencies' FOIA responses, including the charge that the Department of Homeland Security and other federal arms have effectively blocked records requests by assessing the requestor astronomical fees. A lawsuit has been brought against the CIA concerning its FOIA fees.

He also cited an estimate that the government has provided records in response to just 65 percent of the FOIA inquiries it has received.

"Clearly there is more work to be done," he said.

But Melanie Ann Pustay, director of the Office of Information Policy at the Justice Department, the lead government agency for FOIA policy, countered that the figure Kelly cited is misleading because it includes requests for records that the particular agency or department does not have. FOIA requests for extant records, Pustay said, have met with a favorable response 93 percent of the time under Obama's Justice Department.

"To have the release rate be meaningful, [but] it is based on [only] those requests where there are records," she said.

Three years ago, Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidelines for the roughly 100 departments and agencies that administer FOIA requests, identifying the application of technology as a key area for reform and improvement.

Those guidelines and the broader White House open government directive have prodded government bodies to overhaul their public-facing technology, an effort that has seen scores of new websites launch with access to government data, regulations and other information, as well as numerous redesigns of existing sites to put in place more user-friendly layouts, dashboards and improved search capabilities.

The Justice Department recently launched FOIA.gov, a portal that contains information about the FOIA process and response rates, as well as granular data about each department and agency covered by FOIA.

"It's clear that agencies are continuing to make tangible significant progress," Pustay said.

Justice Department Focuses on Metadata

The Justice Department's latest technology initiative on the FOIA front concerns metadata. Pustay explained that the department is working with the General Services Administration to develop standardized methods for tagging records before they are posted online to facilitate more relevant search results.

"We have to be careful. As agencies are very enthusiastically putting information up on the Web, websites can easily become overwhelmed with data. So it's very important that there be a way to find the information that you're looking for," she said.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been developing a FOIA module that is expected to serve as a template for the federal government. The EPA, which is a managing partner of the Regulations.gov portal, is working with the Commerce Department and the National Archives and Records Administration to refine the prototype of the FOIA module, an online tool that aims to remove obstacles from the FOIA process.

Andrew Battin, director of the EPA's Office of Information Collection, explained that the FOIA module is designed to "provide a single place for the three participating agencies to allow the public to come in and submit a request, track that request in a very open and transparent way." The FOIA module enables requestors to check the status of their request as the agencies work toward a goal of responding to all FOIA inquiries within 20 days.

"Also, [it aims] to give them an opportunity to have a dialogue if there are issues that need to be clarified with the FOIA staff and the requestor. There's now a forum to do that," Battin said.

The FOIA module is scheduled to roll out to agencies across government this summer, with a public release planned for October, according to Miriam Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Services at the Archives. In the interest of improving the user experience, Nisbet explained that the Archives is working to achieve a high level of consistency in the Web interfaces that agencies and departments roll out to the public.

The Archives plays the role of mediator in FOIA disputes between requestors and agencies, and Nisbet acknowledged that the technological and policy improvements that government organizations have been developing remain a work in progress.

"Fees and delays continue to be some of the largest number of our cases. There are still problems," she said. "But we see a corresponding emphasis on customer service."

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.

Read more about government in CIO's Government Drilldown.


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