US Officials Still Support Central FOIA Request Portal

21 May 2015

The Obama administration is still committed to the goal of creating a consolidated portal from which citizens can make freedom of information requests, according to official statements made to FreedomInfo.org.

The assurances come after the recent “soft launch” of OpenFOIA generated questions about how much progress was being made.

The latest version of OpenFOIA provides links to the FOIA pages of all federal agencies, but does not itself facilitate FOIA requests.

The “alpha” product won some praise, but left some wondering about the future of the more ambitious portal functionality that has been promised.

In addition, some critics are asking whether the portal should be such a high priority.

Still Committed           

“The request functionality feature is still something the project envisions,” according to a statement provided by the OpenFOIA developers, who are part of the “18F team,” a select group of technology innovators at the General Services Administration.

“The team identified more pressing user needs up front before building in portal functionality, and is working now to add features such as enhanced search,” 18F wrote.

18F developers told FreedomInfo.org they are focused on observing how visitors use OpenFOIA and learning from public comments.

18F developers say they are most interested in helping the public find information they want without FOIA requests. They hope that search software can help answer questions by directing citizens to existing government resources. 18F developers stress that they want to listen to users, be “agile” and create “a piece by piece user-centric model.”

Addressing the FOIA portal concept, and future priorities, 18F stated:

This is an ambitious goal that requires lots of time, effort, and resources. Our initial iteration shows the first steps in our process of creating a tool that will help FOIA requesters, with the goal of getting user feedback.

As the project continues, 18F and others will:

  • explore new features to make the FOIA request process easier for users, and
  • work with agencies to create scalable solutions for openFOIA to connect with existing agency systems.

The Justice Department, the funder of the effort along with GSA, also remains committed to the original portal idea and sees the latest 18F effort as “a first phase,” according to a spokesperson, noting that the 18F is looking to help less sophisticated requesters find information. “We do remain committed to eventually launching a consolidated request portal,” the DOJ spokesperson said.

Concurring, 18F said, “DOJ and the White House continue to work towards the NAP commitment to create a consolidated request portal that will include other features to improve the customer experience.”

Timing, however, is not a topic either 18F or Justice would speculate about.

The portal goal was included in the Obama administration’s December 2013 National Action Plan under the auspices of the multilateral Open Government Partnership. The 18F team began working in the FOIA area in early 2014. A progress report by an OGP independent reviewer is expected out in July.

Congress also seems to want a portal. Legislation moving in the House (HR 653) and Senate (S. 337) contains identical language calling for creation of a “Consolidated Online Request Portal.” The bills also call for the Office of Management and Budget to establish “standards for interoperability” between the portal and other request processing software used by agencies.

The 18F team is not currently working on such interoperability, and one member pointed out the complexity of the job, noting different FOIA practices among agencies. Addressing the lack of online request capability at most agencies is “out of our scope,” one official said.

FreedomInfo.org reported in April that the upcoming version would not provide request-making capability. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

Soft Reaction to Soft Launch

The “soft launch” of the latest version of OpenFOIA several weeks ago went unnoticed for several weeks, but the eventual commentators noted little apparent movement toward a consolidated request portal.

“For now, the site is relatively Spartan,” observed an article in the Huffington Post.

“This doesn’t yet fill the most ambitious FOIA-related commitment in the U.S. Open Government Partnership National Action Plan — a ‘consolidated online FOIA service’ — which will be a huge boon to public requesters when it allows for online submission and tracking of FOIA requests,” said John Wonderlich. policy director at the Sunlight Foundation. “Hopefully, this release will serve as the groundwork for such a system.”

Sean Moulton at the Center for Effective Government called the demo site “better than anything that’s out there right now.” Quoted in a FedScoop article, Moulton also said, “What we were hoping for was kind of this one-stop shop where someone could submit a FOIA to any agency.”

Some Question Goal

Not everyone is as supportive of the portal goal.

Michel Morisy, who developed the alternative FOIA request site Muckrock for $5,000, said other FOIA issues should be prioritized.

He wrote FreedomInfo.org:

Like almost every transparency initiative this White House has taken, a FOIA portal provides a really nice concrete thing they can
point to and say, “See, we’re transparent,” while not addressing the underlying problem. Is a consolidated FOIA portal easier than googling an agency’s name + “FOIA”? Debatably, but I think submission is the least tricky part for requesters, and for many requesters even a great portal is worse than email.

18F could be more beneficial, Morisy said, by curing federal agencies of their continuing practice of sending FOIA responses in print. “Why in 2015 is so much paper mailed around? Why isn’t 18F addressing that, which would have huge benefits for both FOIA requesters as well as just internal operations and cost savings?”

Morisy also said that a FOIA portal “discourages the use of FOIA by journalists.” He said, “There’s a lot of ways to improve FOIA, building a portal may or may not be one, but it’s weird to me of all the things that could improve FOIA, the one that discourages media usage is the one they pick. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy or malicious, but I do think it’s a dumb prioritization made by smart people facing tough problems.”

He continued:

I’m biased here, obviously, but the number of federal agencies who communicate with us electronically consistently is … zero? So that
they’re building a FOIA portal rather than building better processing tools or one of a zillion other things that could improve public
access is frustrating. I’ve spoken with them on and off about my perspective here, and I think think they’re amazingly smart, talented
people pushing to make America stronger, but I disagree with what appears to be the strategy, although freely admit that the politics of
getting anything good done when the DOJ is in charge are probably nearly impossible to manage.

Private Sector Perspective

David Kruger, Vice President of AINS, the leading provider of FOIA management software to government agencies, supports the portal concept, but thinks it is getting “disproportionate attention” and diverting resources from other FOIA problems. Most requesters know where they need to file, he said.

Kruger supports the legislation, stressing the importance of the provision ordering the development of interoperability standards so the portal could interface with agency FOIA case management systems.

He’d like to see more clarity about the portal project, commenting, “It is very hard to hold 18F accountable for what they are doing.”

He’s a critic of a FOIA management system run by the Environmental Protection Agency and used by more than dozen “postage stamp agencies.” EPA has a “miserable” FOIA compliance track record, he said, and should focus on improving its performance.

Kruger predicts that in the future there will be more special purpose, user-facing web portals created by interest groups — “special interest FOIA sites” — and says they should be able to point to a centralized web portal.

 

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