FOIA Requests Go Online

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New portal promises improved public access to government information.

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As a response to public pressure to make Freedom of Information Act requests more efficient and responsive, several agencies have unveiled “FOIAonline,” a multi-agency FOIA request tracking and processing tool. The new web-based portal allows users to submit FOIA requests, track the progress of requests, communicate with agency staff, search and view FOIA responses, and file appeals. FOIAonline is intended to increase agency transparency and collaboration while decreasing duplicative FOIA requests.

The portal aims to make submitting FOIA requests easier by providing “a single interface through which the public can submit requests to any participating agency, eliminating the need to find the contact information for multiple agencies,” according to Joey Hutcherson, Deputy Director of Open Government, U. S. Department of Commerce. The portal seeks to “improve transparency by making released documents fully available to the general public, rather than delivered only to the requester [which also prevents] agencies from processing multiple requests for the same materials over and over.”

As of October 1, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Merit Systems Protection Board, the U.S. Commerce Department, the Federal Labor Relations Authority, and the National Archives and Records Administration have begun accepting FOIA requests through the portal. Other agencies are expected to transition to the system once its benefits are recognized.

According to the advocacy organization OMB Watch, FOIAonline is “a major advance in modernizing the FOIA system to deliver transparency more effectively and efficiently.” However, Hutcherson suggests that “[t]he ability of the government to meet FOIA requirements while working in a reduced budget environment is next to impossible” and “the FOIA module is not a silver bullet, [but] it does allow a cost-effective implementation to improve an agency’s FOIA effort and public outreach.”

FOIAonline cost $1.3 million to develop and is estimated to cost $500-750k annually to operate.

FOIAonline is not integrated with or other existing electronic FOIA processing systems. The Department of Justice does not plan on integrating with FOIAonline.