In passing the E-FOIA amendments, Congress sought to require
agencies to use the rapidly developing electronic communications
tools of the World Wide Web and the Internet to communicate
with the public. The federal government now has a significant
presence on the Web, with thousands of individual sites government-wide.
Today, 73% of the adult public has Internet access. As Americans
increasingly turn to the Internet for a broad range of everyday
needs, from research and financial matters to social interactions
and shopping, it is only logical that they also look to government
Web sites to provide information and services.
The accessibility of the FOIA Web site to the public is an
obvious requirement that flows not only from the statutory provisions
but also from the daily course of modern life. In this regard,
the structure, design, and maintenance of agency FOIA sites
are integral to E-FOIA compliance. Because of the vast and sprawling
nature of the Internet, navigational structure and organization
are key components of any Web site. A site that is filled with
helpful information but is not organized in such a way that
the information can be easily located and accessed is not a
AGENCY WEB SITES FAIL TO MAKE FOIA PROGRAMS UNDERSTANDABLE AND
AGENCY HOME PAGE LINKS ARE NOT EFFECTIVE
DOJ gives agencies clear direction on how to organize their
electronic FOIA information: "Web users need to be able
to access your FOIA home page quickly and simply from your agency's
home page. This point cannot be made too emphatically. Therefore,
on your agency's home page there should be a link that is unquestionably
the link to your FOIA site." Records that can be found
only by someone with extensive computer or Web experience, or
only by searching or clicking through a complex chain of links
are, in effect, inaccessible to the general public.
Most agencies and components-95% of those we reviewed-have
a FOIA link on their main agency home page. Notable
agencies that do not link to FOIA information from their home
pages include the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the
U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), Oak Ridge Operations Office
(ORO), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Bureau of Prisons (BOP),
EPA Region 2 (EPA-2), and Office of Rural Development (RD).
Most agencies also follow DOJ's recommendation to title the
link "FOIA" or "Freedom of Information Act."
A few agencies use what DOJ refers to as "obscure,
inadequate links." Two agencies-the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Federal Maritime Commission
(FMC)-have labeled the FOIA links on their home pages "Electronic
Reading Room," with no reference to FOIA. Several others
have FOIA links that appear within rollover menus, only visible
when the cursor moves over them. For example, the Federal Labor
Relations Authority (FLRA) has a FOIA link located in a rollover
menu entitled "Introduction to the FLRA." Similarly,
the Social Security Administration (SSA) has placed its FOIA
link inside a rollover menu entitled "Useful Links."
These types of links do not provide the public easy access to
the FOIA Web site.
Placement of the FOIA link within the home page
varies widely. While most agencies do satisfy
the basic requirement, not all FOIA links are created equally.
Our reviews found that placement breaks down as follows:
DOJ emphasizes the need for a FOIA link that can
be accessed "quickly and simply" and is "readily
accessible to the most inexperienced user." We found that
51% of agencies place the link at the very bottom of their home
page. Some of these links are adequate because the text is large
enough and visible when a user arrives on the page. In cases
where the home page is long, however, users must scroll down
to find what is usually a small link in grey text alongside
the copyright notice and Webmaster contact information. Such
placement makes FOIA appear to be a mere formality or part of
the "fine print," rather than a central tool for members
of the public to learn about their government.
AGENCY WEB SITES ARE POORLY ORGANIZED AND DIFFICULT TO NAVIGATE
The most common general criticism
that arose through our Web site review was that agency sites
were disorganized, poorly structured, and difficult to navigate.
In some cases, the design and structure of the sites made finding
basic information challenging. The most problematic sites are
those that provide copious amounts of information but are so
poorly organized and difficult to navigate that the information
is virtually useless.
Many FOIA pages are characterized
by poorly-identified and improperly-placed links to move through
the sites. In some cases, links are inappropriately
named, ambiguous, or redundant. For example, the Department
of the Interior (DOI) site has a static FOIA navigation bar
on the left side of each FOIA page, but the links do not communicate
to the user what is contained on each page: there is one link
entitled "FOIA Contacts" and another "FOIA Service
Centers/Liaisons," but each includes contact information
for different offices and bureaus; one link for the "Electronic
Reading Room" contains some documents, and a nearby link
to "Frequently Requested Documents" leads to a page
with a variety of required records, including FOIA annual reports.
This haphazard approach is confusing to users.
Very few agencies have consistent
links to the most important FOIA information within the FOIA
pages. Most agency Web sites have an overarching
navigation scheme for the entire site, with static links on
each page that allow users to move through various sections
of the general site. Almost none have that structure for their
FOIA pages. The absence of static links to bring users back
to important information makes it likely that users will get
lost on the Web site. The Department of Housing and Urban Development
(HUD) FOIA site is an example of the difficulties that arise
when a FOIA site lacks good navigation. Although this site is
full of useful information about making a FOIA request and contains
many publicly-available materials, it is very difficult to navigate.
A box with "Helpful Links" appears only on the first
page, and after several clicks to find FOIA guidance-for example,
to "Making a FOIA Request" and then to a subsequent
page about "Fees and Fee Waivers"-it takes several
more non-intuitive clicks to get back to the main FOIA page
where other relevant links are located. Another example of poor
link placement is the Department of the Army FOIA site, which
uses rollover menus containing basic FOIA-related links, including
some for required documents. The menus are difficult to read
and may not be fully functional in some Web browsers or accessible
for some users with disabilities. Moreover, the designated links
within each menu are ambiguous and redundant.
FOIA SITES LACK UP-TO-DATE AND ACCURATE CONTENT AND LINKS
Many agencies do not provide a date when the site
was last updated, so there is no way to determine the timeliness
of the information. DOJ's recommendations regarding
key elements of a good FOIA page emphasize "the accuracy
and timeliness of the information on the page and the currency
of links." DOJ directs agencies to "thoroughly review
each aspect of their FOIA home pages on at least a quarterly
basis." In several cases, we found sites that had not been
updated for a year or more prior to the time of the review.
Another problem that plagues many FOIA sites is
the presence of incorrect information. For example,
a member of the National Security Archive staff was searching
for a fax number to send a request to Air Materiel Command,
a component of the Air Force. The only list of contact information
we could find, buried deep on the Air Force FOIA site, provided
a fax number for the component. However, the number given was
not an Air Force fax at all, but rather the phone number for
a patient room in a hospital. We could not locate a working
fax number for Air Materiel Command despite extensive research,
and our phone calls to the Air Materiel Command FOIA office
Other pages appear outdated because of numerous
broken links or obsolete information. For example,
in the section of the VA electronic reading room entitled "Agency
Policy" (which actually includes links to policy documents
as well as manuals and legal materials related to adjudications
and appeals), nearly half of the links listed on the page were
broken. Although upon cursory inspection it appears that the
VA had posted E-FOIA required records in a number of important
categories, in actuality the information available on this site
is very limited because of the problems in accessing the links.
While VA may have made some initial effort to set up this portion
of its FOIA site, VA has failed to check the site for accuracy
or follow up regularly to ensure that links continue to function.
AGENCY WEB SITES EMPLOY FORMATS AND TECHNOLOGY THAT ARE EITHER
DYSFUNCTIONAL OR INACCESSIBLE TO MANY USERS
Several agencies provide information in multiple
formats (e.g., Microsoft Word, PDF, Microsoft Excel, HTML, and
even "zipped" files). While some of
these formats are common, easy to use, and the only reasonable
format for the information they convey, others may be unfamiliar
to many users or inaccessible to people using public computers.
In particular, it is very difficult to navigate a site when
various links lead to materials in different formats and from
different sources that are not identified as such.
Some agencies also employ advanced Web design technologies
to produce visually stimulating multimedia elements that cannot
be accessed by all users. The most common of these
is Adobe Flash, which requires installation of the Flash Player
on a user's computer in order for the Web site to function fully.
The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) site in particular includes a FOIA
tutorial in the form of a Flash show-a combination of text,
graphics, and animation that plays as a video clip. The video
is slow to load, and the only way to find certain guidance is
by viewing the clip, which many less technologically-advanced
users may not be able to do.
READING ROOMS ON MANY SITES ARE NOT WELL IDENTIFIED AND ARE
DIFFICULT TO LOCATE OR ACCESS
Only two-thirds of the reviewed agencies actually
refer to a portion of their site as an "electronic reading
room," despite the fact that DOJ consistently uses this
term in its guidance. This disparity could be
confusing to members of the public using various agency Web
sites. Other designations used by some agencies include:
- "Document Center" (Carlsbad Field Office)
- "Documents Online" (National Science Foundation)
- "Popular FOIA Requests" (Office of Thrift Supervision)
- "Hot FOIAs" (Mine Safety & Health Administration
and Employment Standards Administration)
- "Hot Docs" (National Park Service)
- "Current Index" (Farm Credit Administration)
SHOULD DESIGN FOIA SITES TO ENSURE SMOOTH NAVIGATION AND EASY
ACCESS TO REQUIRED INFORMATION
LABEL FOIA LINKS APPROPRIATELY AND DISPLAY THEM PROMINENTLY
ON THEIR HOME PAGES
Although nothing in the statute requires an agency's FOIA link
to be of a certain size or prominence on the home page, some
links are easier to find than others. Agencies should give their
FOIA links sufficiently prominent placement on their home pages
for the links to be viewed by a user without scrolling or taking
any other action on the page. Only a handful of agencies have
adopted this best practice. For example, the Federal Trade Commission
Web site displays a FOIA tab just below the site header in a
main navigation bar with seven other general administrative
links for the agency. Other agencies-including the Federal Communications
Commission and the Department of Transportation-place their
FOIA links in navigation bars running down the side of the page
with other essential links for users of the agency Web site.
These links are clear and readable, fulfilling E-FOIA's purpose
of easy access.
AGENCIES SHOULD USE CLEAR, TRANSPARENT
NAVIGATIONAL SCHEMES ON THEIR FOIA PAGES AND THROUGHOUT THEIR
The Webby Award has become a standard for evaluating all types
of Web sites and commending Internet best practices. Structure
and navigation of sites is one of the key judging areas, and
federal agencies should take the organization's basic criteria
to heart in assessing their own FOIA Web sites: "Sites
with good structure and navigation are consistent, intuitive
and transparent. They allow you to form a mental model of the
information provided, where to find things, and what to expect
when you click. Good navigation gets you where you want to go
quickly and offers easy access to the breadth and dept of the
There are many resources available for Web designers to assist
with improving navigation and usability of sites. Most importantly,
the federal government itself provides extensive support for
agency Web site development, primarily through the Interagency
Committee on Government Information, established and overseen
by OMB. Many of the agency home pages and Web sites generally
do follow the basic government usability guidelines, but most
of the FOIA sites appear to have been left behind when good
Web practices were adopted agency-wide. It should not, therefore,
be a difficult step for agencies to upgrade deficient sites
to make FOIA-related materials more accessible.
A few very basic additions and revisions to some of the organizationally
deficient FOIA sites could make a significant difference in
the usability and user-friendliness of these sites. In particular,
agencies should use a consistent navigation bar within their
FOIA pages to direct users to the most significant FOIA-related
information. A static navigation scheme also helps to ensure
visual consistency and ease of use. Links within these static
menus should be simple, intuitive and provide a roadmap that
does not leave users guessing where to click to find the information
they are seeking. Electronic reading rooms within the site should
be clearly labeled as such, so that users can easily locate
the required records on an agency site and so that Congress
can effectively assess the compliance of all agencies.
SHOULD FORMAT THEIR SITES TO BE ACCESSIBLE TO THE GREATEST NUMBER
OF POTENTIAL USERS
HTML pages should be the standard format for essential information
and guidance for requesters, where possible, because basic HTML
can be viewed by all users, including those with older platforms
or slower Internet connections. Agencies should never use advanced
Web technologies as the only means to convey information on
their sites. When agencies appeal to Web-savvy users, they should
be mindful of not leaving others-those with limited skills or
technology resources-behind. If an agency chooses to provide
information in several different formats, these options should
be clear and easy to find. NASA accomplishes this by offering
a Flash version, a regular HTML version (text and images), and
a text-only version of its comprehensive site. The Inter-American
Foundation uses Flash technology but offers a non-Flash version
of its site as well.
For documents not originally in electronic form, agencies should
post the files as PDFs because PDF is the format that best preserves
the integrity of records. However, agencies that make documents
available in PDF form should include an obvious link to download
the free Adobe PDF viewer, which can be used with all common
AGENCIES SHOULD SEEK PUBLIC FEEDBACK
ON THEIR WEB SITES
Agencies should solicit and consider public feedback from FOIA
requesters and others who regularly use the sites. In a noteworthy
effort, the Department of State in December 2006 held a forum
for the public to comment on its FOIA Web site as part of an
effort to enhance the site and improve FOIA processing under
Executive Order 13,392. This forum gave frequent requesters
an opportunity to suggest improvements, including revising the
navigation structure and link titles throughout the site. The
State Department continues to show an interest in making its
Web site, and its FOIA program, effective, efficient, and user-friendly.
Several other agencies have included pop-up comment forms on
their pages that allow users to rate their experiences in real
time. This type of process for feedback could be very useful,
but the forms we saw generally only allowed for a very basic
determination of whether or not the site was helpful but no
specific comments or suggestions.
MAIN AGENCIES FAIL TO COORDINATE THEIR COMPONENTS' FOIA PROGRAMS
Many Departments and other large agencies are organized in
a decentralized manner. At some agencies, such as Department
of Homeland Security (DHS) and DOD, separate components are
responsible for very different programs. Other agencies, such
as the Department of Energy (DOE), Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA), and VA, have components or field offices with
regionally defined responsibilities. In many cases, these agencies
have decentralized FOIA programs, which means that each of the
components receives, processes, and responds directly to FOIA
requests from members of the public. Some agencies, such as
DOD, have individual components that are also decentralized,
with sub-components that maintain their own FOIA programs.
There are benefits to decentralization. It puts responsibility
for finding and processing records in the hands of the people
who know them best. A major disadvantage, however, is that it
can create a challenging maze for the ordinary FOIA requester
to navigate. Our reviews found that the deficiencies in the
organization of FOIA Web pages tended to be magnified when the
agency is decentralized. In such cases, the absence of any overall
FOIA leadership within the agency has led to disparate and confusing
Web pages-and practices-at most of the agencies.
Generally, components of decentralized agencies do maintain
their own FOIA sites, and DOJ guidance endorses this practice
in most cases. But our reviews revealed that compliance with
E-FOIA across components was inconsistent and, in some cases,
components lacked FOIA pages entirely when the agency's Web
site scheme suggested that each component was supposed to maintain
its own FOIA page.
COMPONENT FOIA PAGES AND ELECTRONIC READING ROOMS ARE DIFFICULT
TO LOCATE OR INACCESSIBLE FROM MAIN AGENCY SITES
Of the major agencies with components, 38% did
not include links to their component FOIA Web pages and 29%
did not have FOIA contact information for their components.
While many components maintain their own FOIA
Web pages and electronic reading rooms, there are not always
links to these sites from the main agency FOIA Web page. Without
contact information and links, members of the public may never
find the resources housed on the component pages and may indeed
never discover that the components exist.
In other cases, components or sub-components do not maintain
their own FOIA sites. When an agency neglects to provide information
about components that is necessary to file requests, requesters
are left without guidance. For example, the Air Force FOIA pages
do not contain adequate guidance or an electronic reading room
with required documents. Instead, what is called an "Electronic
Reading Room" is merely a page with links (many broken)
to the main Web site for each Air Force sub-component. The requester
must then sift through these Web sites to find information on
how to file a FOIA request with each of these subcomponents.
GUIDANCE REGARDING COMPONENTS IS INADEQUATE IN MANY CASES
There is significant disparity in how component
sites provide guidance on submitting FOIA requests.
In some cases, components provide their own FOIA guidance. In
other cases, components provide only very limited or partial
guidance and rely heavily on the main agency's FOIA Web page
for other information. On sites with this type of organization,
it can be very difficult to navigate between the component and
the main agency, and links to agency-wide guidance send a user
back to the main site with no easy way to return to the component
Contact information and basic guidance for each
component is not provided on component Web sites in all cases.
FEMA, a component of DHS, exhibits this problem because the
component site provides no address or fax number for filing
a request. Guidance links lead back to the main DHS FOIA site,
where a user must search through several pages to find component-by-component
contact information giving details about how to send a request
In decentralized agencies, it is often unclear
which component is responsible for what types of records.
A FOIA requester who is not familiar with the structure and
organization of a large agency may be lost on some FOIA sites.
Many large agencies specifically direct that requests should
be filed with the component the requester believes holds the
information. But in some cases, there are minimal, if any, descriptions
of the components' record holdings, and the vast majority of
components have not complied with the record indexing requirements
in the statute. Therefore, a requester is left either to guess
blindly about where to file the request or contact the main
FOIA office or one or more component offices to get more details
when such information could simply be posted on the agencies'
and components' FOIA sites.
MUST GUIDE AND PROVIDE OVERSIGHT FOR DECENTRALIZED COMPONENTS
ISSUE GUIDELINES TO COMPONENTS AND PROVIDE ASSISTANCE IN DEVELOPING
WEB SITES COMPLIANT WITH E-FOIA
Agency-wide compliance with E-FOIA is the responsibility of
each agency, whether or not its FOIA processing is decentralized.
Agencies should issue guidance to all components and ensure
that the components are complying with all E-FOIA requirements.
The responsibility for compliance should not be pushed onto
the individual components.
In particular, agencies should assist their components by providing
a template or standard procedures for establishing a FOIA page.
Some DOJ components appear to base their FOIA pages on a template.
This is a simple strategy that other agencies should adopt.
Not only would consistency among components make it easier for
members of the public to find information, it could also make
it easier for components to ensure that they are complying with
the law without having to expend significant resources.
SHOULD ENSURE SMOOTH NAVIGATION BETWEEN MAIN AND COMPONENT FOIA
SITES AND AMONG COMPONENTS
Each main agency FOIA Web page should contain clear links to
its component FOIA Web pages with descriptions of the records
that are held by that particular component. A good example of
this is the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) FOIA
Web page, which includes a list of all its components with a
brief description of each and a link to each FOIA page. DOJ
also provides as an appendix to its FOIA Guide a comprehensive
list of components and a general description of their missions
as well as links and contact information for filing requests.
This approach provides the requester with the necessary guidance
to determine which component may hold the records he or she
is seeking; it also helps to direct the requester to the correct
component's FOIA site or electronic reading room to look for
Agencies can also use a portal scheme to connect the FOIA information
made available by each of their components. NASA recently redesigned
its main FOIA Web page to serve as a portal to all thirteen
NASA centers, with direct links to each of the centers' FOIA
resources. Users of this site can easily move among the different
pages but always return directly to the central site if one
page does not provide the information they are seeking. This
scheme also facilitates oversight of each component by the NASA
FOIA staff to ensure that their sites are accurate, up-to-date,
and in compliance with the law.
SHOULD PROVIDE ADEQUATE GUIDANCE, OR AT LEAST ENSURE EASY AND
CLEAR ACCESS TO AGENCY-WIDE GUIDANCE
If a component does rely on an agency-wide guide or handbook,
there should be a direct link to the guide from the FOIA site
with an explanation of the applicability of agency-wide guidance
to the component. There should also be simple navigational tools
for returning to the component site. Nonetheless, certain basic
guidance-contact information and any component-specific requirements
for filing FOIA requests-should be easily accessible on each
component site without the need to return to the main site or
search for this information.
Section - Conclusion ->