No Central Request Function In Planned US FOIA Portal

16 April 2015

By Toby McIntosh

The “FOIA Portal” being developed by the Obama administration is underwhelming, according to persons interviewed by FreedomInfo.org.

The portal will lack a key feature typically described as a “Consolidated Online Request Portal.” In particular, the yet unveiled portal will not provide a central place to file freedom of information requests. Nor will it track requests or display the results of requests.

“It’s not really a portal,” said one person briefed on the project. “It doesn’t look like what I had in mind for a FOIA portal,” said another.

At least in its initial phase, the portal will serve potential requesters by providing links to the FOIA pages at departments and agencies.

As such, the site, openFOIA, was called by one person as an “amped up” version on an existing website, FOIA.gov, run by the Justice Department, which already provides links to government FOIA offices.

The portal is being developed by the highly regarded “18F team,” a select group of technology innovators at the General Services Administration. GSA would not comment on the status of effort, which has been under way for about 10 months, but briefings have been provided on Capitol Hill.

Current 18F plans, those briefed all said, do not envision that the portal will be a central place for requesters to file FOIA requests. This was the outcome expected by many observers, promised by the Obama administration and called for in pending FOIA legislation.

The GSA public affairs office declined to provide information to FreedomInfo.org or arrange interviews with 18F personnel, instead recommending waiting for an announcement. “I would very much like to share with you more about the work we’re doing on the FOIA Portal, but we are unable to offer any more comment at this time,” wrote Ori Hoffer, “As soon as the information can be made public, we will let you know.”

First Announcement Raised Hopes

The first and only announcement about the planned FOIA Portal came in September of 2014 in an 18F blog post. A picture shows an “illustrative prototype running on a mobile phone.” Visible on the phone is “AlphaFOIAGOV” below which is the question, “What agency are you submitting a request to?”

The blog post spoke about a consolidated request submission hub, saying the tool is part of an effort to:

  • improve the FOIA request submission experience;
  • create a scalable infrastructure for making requests to federal agencies; and
  • make it easier for requesters to find records and other information that have already been made available online.

Officials said at the time that there was no blueprint for the project, saying it was being built organically.

Still being worked on, but apparently not ready yet, according to those briefed, is a tool to allow citizens to conduct searches of agency documents that will help guide them to the right agencies for making FOIA requests.

From the beginning, 18F indicated that it was not creating a backend tool for FOIA processing offices to use in managing requests.

The operating software for FOIA processing is provided both by the private sector and by government-developed systems. FOIAOnline is a government-created site with 12 voluntarily participating departments (list). Commercial providers such as FOIAXpress also provide systems for agencies. FOIAXpress’s website indicated 13 federal clients. These companies have lobbied against a combined national site based on FOIAOnline, according to those with knowledge of the lobbying, although FOIAXpress did not reply to requests for comment.

Following 18F Process Seen as Difficult

The development of the FOI portal is presumably viewable on GitHub, a system 18F is using that transparently shows the code discussion by the programmers, in technical language. One recent entry being headlined “Merge branch ‘master’ of github.com:18F/foia-hub into analytics.” Another: “dry init script that migrates and loads data.”

Little is shown, however, that illuminates policy decisions, according those in the FOIA community who said they do not follow GitHub.. A section on “issues” has just one comment, from within GSA.

The dates of the GitHub entries suggest the pace of work decreased in recent months.

“The portal’s in its infancy that’s for sure,” observed one person who was briefed recently

Defining FOIA Portal

At this point appear that the 18F team has not fulfilled that an Obama administration promise or the goal that has been a feature of congressional FOIA reform bills for several years.

Legislation in the House (HR 653) and Senate (S. 337) contains identical language calling for creation of a “Consolidated Online Request Portal” that would allow “a member of the public to submit a request for records under subsection (a) to any agency from a single website.” The bills have been reported out of committee and are awaiting floor action. Concerns that not all agencies accept email FOIA requests prompted a House committee to amend its bill with such a mandate.

The Obama administration in late 2013 called for a FOIA portal in the second U.S. national action plan prepared as a member of the Open Government Partnership. It states:

The Administration will launch a consolidated request portal that allows the public to submit a request to any Federal agency from a single website and includes additional tools to improve the customer experience.

The original 18F blog post appears to conform with this goal.

A screen shot of the planned site from last August says, “Here you can submit requests, search responsive documents and learn more about FOIA.” The mock site goes on to ask potential requesters what agency they are interested in and provides a list. Then, using GSA as an example, it lists “common requests.” A mocked-up form provides spaces for your name, email address and your request, followed by a big bar “Submit.” There does not appear to be a newer iteration of this prototype.

In any event, according to those briefed, the current 18F model would not handle FOIA request. The main foreseeable deliverable would improve requestors’ ability to find agency FOIA sites.

“It’s an overlay that connects all the sites, but doesn’t change anything,” commented one person.

“If that’s the case there is going to be a massive uproar,” commented a transparency reformer not intimately aware of what’s being planned.

Search Function Planned

The 18F team plans to help potential requesters by providing a “search” function, according to those briefed and 18F materials.

Such a search would interrogate databases of released agency documents identify materials already released that would conform to the requester’s interests.

Development of this function is ongoing.

Limiting the potential value of this capability is the size of the universe of departments that have online FOIA libraries.

Only about 40 percent of agencies, however, have such libraries, where the results of FOIA requests are available and searchable.

18F materials reference searching documents from State and FOIAonline.

A recent audit found that out of 165 federal offices, found only 67 with updated and populated online libraries. The audit was done by Nate Jones and Lauren Harper of the National Security Archive, also the publisher of FreedomInfo.org. “The presumption of openness requires the presumption of posting,” said Archive director Tom Blanton. “For the new generation, if it’s not online, it does not exist.”

Even when they exist, FOIA libraries are by definition incomplete in the sense that they contain material that has been released at the end of sometimes prolonged FOIA process. Also, according to those briefed, the 18F search function would not search pending requests or denial letters.

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