home | about | documents | news | publications | FOIA | research | internships | search | donate | mailing list

Most Agencies Falling Short on Mandate for Online Records

The National Security Archive 2015 E-FOIA Audit

1996 E-FOIA Amendments ordered e-reading rooms for released FOIA documents, Meant to reduce duplicative requests, ensure public access, fulfill intent of FOIA

Audit checked 165 federal offices, found only 67 with updated and populated online libraries; Some 17 "E-Star" agencies disprove common excuses of cost and disability compliance

Released for Sunshine Week, 2015 Audit latest of Archive's 14 FOIA Audits since 2002; Previous findings drove policy and legislative reforms improving FOIA performance

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 505

Audit authored by Nate Jones and Lauren Harper, data chart compiled by Lauren Harper and linked by Jamie Noguchi, Audit edited by Tom Blanton

Posted - March 13, 2015

For more information contact:
Nate Jones/Lauren Harper/Tom Blanton 202/994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Washington, DC, March 13, 2015 – Nearly 20 years after Congress passed the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments (E-FOIA), only 40 percent of agencies have followed the law's instruction for systematic posting of records released through FOIA in their electronic reading rooms, according to a new FOIA Audit released today by the National Security Archive at www.nsarchive.org to mark Sunshine Week.

The Archive team audited all federal agencies with Chief FOIA Officers as well as agency components that handle more than 500 FOIA requests a year — 165 federal offices in all — and found only 67 with online libraries populated with significant numbers of released FOIA documents and regularly updated.

Why did the National Security Archive choose to audit e-reading rooms?

Since the law passed in 1966, FOIA has required agencies to make "available for public inspection and copying" certain defined categories of records. For the first thirty years, agencies satisfied this portion of the FOIA with "conventional reading rooms," physical locations where members of the public could review paper or microform copies of the records.

In 1996 Congress sought to revolutionize the public's access to information and the Freedom of Information Act process by directing agencies to use the Internet to make more information — including documents released by FOIA — available.  Congress saw huge returns on the horizon: more public access to important government information and less time and money spent at agencies to process FOIA requests.

Congress has since been proven right. Proactive release of records, such as those the National Aeronautics and Space Administration released about the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, and those the Department of the Interior released about the Deep Water Horizon oil spill, has enriched the public debate, and saved those agencies huge amounts of processing time for FOIA requests that instead were satisfied by just looking online.

This Audit has found seventeen E-Star agencies that have embraced Congress's vision and are thriving. But we also found many who continue to bury their documents in an analog hole. Thirty agencies have adopted just the bare minimum of Congress's instruction to become digital; thirty-three agencies have not even done that.

The FOIA system is a zero-sum game, unfortunately. In the sequester era, with finite and ever-more-limited government resources, any new request from the public competes for time and effort with every previous request. The only way out of this resource trap is for agencies to put online as many records as possible, those previously released, those likely to be asked for in the future, those of any public interest. This way, the FOIA process could ultimately be limited just to those records where a genuine dispute exists about whether they should be public.

The National Security Archive conducted its E-FOIA audit to help drive this policy debate forward, to highlight best and worst practices government-wide, and to prod agencies to fulfill the law, for their own benefit as well as for the public good.

Congress called on agencies to embrace disclosure and the digital era nearly two decades ago, with the passage of the 1996 "E-FOIA" amendments. The law mandated that agencies post key sets of records online, provide citizens with detailed guidance on making FOIA requests, and use new information technology to post online proactively records of significant public interest, including those already processed in response to FOIA requests and "likely to become the subject of subsequent requests."

Congress believed then, and openness advocates know now, that this kind of proactive disclosure, publishing online the results of FOIA requests as well as agency records that might be requested in the future, is the only tenable solution to FOIA backlogs and delays. Thus the National Security Archive chose to focus on the e-reading rooms of agencies in its latest audit.

Even though the majority of federal agencies have not yet embraced proactive disclosure of their FOIA releases, the Archive E-FOIA Audit did find that some real "E-Stars" exist within the federal government, serving as examples to lagging agencies that technology can be harnessed to create state-of-the art FOIA platforms. Unfortunately, our audit also found "E-Delinquents" whose abysmal web performance recalls the teletype era.

E-Stars include the Departments of Energy and State, the FBI, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the agencies that have embraced the government's opt-in FOIA portal, FOIAonline, which posts digital copies of FOIA releases. E-Stars such as the Department of State have shown that even agencies wracked by FOIA delays and deplorable record keeping can have a positive FOIA impact by posting their releases proactively. The excellent search functionality of the Department of State's agency-leading E-Reading Room will make State's website a pleasurable platform to browse, search, and read portions of former Secretary Clinton's emails — when they are released.

E-Delinquents include the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House, which, despite being mandated to advise the President on technology policy, does not embrace 21st century practices by posting any frequently requested records online. Another E-Delinquent, the Drug Enforcement Administration, insults its website's viewers by claiming that it "does not maintain records appropriate for FOIA Library at this time."

"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."

The National Security Archive has conducted fourteen FOIA Audits since 2002. Modeled after the California Sunshine Survey and subsequent state "FOI Audits," the Archive's FOIA Audits use open-government laws to test whether or not agencies are obeying those same laws. Recommendations from previous Archive FOIA Audits have led directly to laws and executive orders which have: set explicit customer service guidelines, mandated FOIA backlog reduction, assigned individualized FOIA tracking numbers, forced agencies to report the average number of days needed to process requests, and revealed the (often embarrassing) ages of the oldest pending FOIA requests. The surveys include:

FOIA Regulations, Still Outdated?

In addition to requiring agencies to post FOIA releases online, the 1996 E-FOIA Act also required agencies to post other documents related to their FOIA programs, including their FOIA regulations.  Three previous National Security Archive audits, Outdated Agency Regs Undermine Freedom of InformationFreedom of Information Regulations: Still Outdated, Still Undermining Openness, and Half of Federal Agencies Still Use Outdated Freedom of Information Regulation (2014), examined agency FOIA pages and concluded that in many cases finding FOIA regulations — the handbook FOIA processors are trained to use as they process requests — was a "shockingly difficult task"... Or impossible as the regulations were digitally nonexistent.

The most recent Regulations Audit also found that 50 out of 101 federal agencies still have not updated their FOIA regulations to comply with Congress's 2007 FOIA amendments.  Even more agencies (55 out of 101) have FOIA regulations predating President Obama and Attorney General Holder's 2009 guidance for a "presumption of disclosure."

Since our Audits began to highlight missing and outdated FOIA regulations, fifteen agencies have risen to the challenge, although not all have adopted the best practices our Audits established. In addition, in response to our reporting, both the current House and Senate FOIA bills include language requiring agencies to update their FOIA regulations within 180 days after the passage of the bills.

A White House initiative is also currently in progress to force agencies to update their FOIA regulations at least to comply with the 2007 FOIA reform amendments and with the progressive Obama-Holder guidance on FOIA. In the current Open Government Partnership National Action Plan, the White House has committed to creating one "core FOIA regulation and common set of practices [that] would make it easier for requesters to understand and navigate the FOIA process and easier for the Government to keep regulations up to date."

The National Security Archive, Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and Electronic Privacy and Information Center have drafted model, best practice, model FOIA regulations that agencies should adopt.

The federal government has made some progress moving into the digital era. The National Security Archive's last E-FOIA Audit in 2007, " File Not Found," reported that only one in five federal agencies had put online all of the specific requirements mentioned in the E-FOIA amendments, such as guidance on making requests, contact information, and processing regulations. The new E-FOIA Audit finds the number of agencies that have checked those boxes is now much higher — 100 out of 165 — though many (66 in 165) have posted just the bare minimum, especially when posting FOIA responses. An additional 33 agencies even now do not post these types of records at all, clearly thwarting the law's intent.

 

THE E-STARS: BEST OVERALL AGENCIES

In alphabetical order

Department of Energy: The Department of Energy won its "E-Star" for both its well-maintained DOE FOIA portal that consists of documents previously released under the FOIA, as well as its frequently requested records page found in the "Documents" section.

Department of State: The Department of State earned its "E-Star" status for its proactive posting of over 100,000 documents requested under the FOIA, which it updates quarterly. (One positive from Secretary Clinton's "emailgate" is that the State Department library will allow excellent search and browsing capabilities!)

Federal Bureau of Investigation: The FBI's searchable "Vault" of previously requested documents and its "Hot Topic" documents page are two of the reasons it won an "E-Star."

The FOIAonline Members (Department of Commerce, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Labor Relations Authority, Merit Systems Protection Board, National Archives and Records Administration, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, Department of the Navy, General Services Administration, Small Business Administration, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Federal Communications Commission) won their "E-Star" by making past requests and releases searchable via FOIAonline. FOIAonline also allows users to submit their FOIA requests digitally.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission: The NRC won its "E-Star" for posting lists of closed FOIA requests that link to released documents.

 

THE E-DELINQUENTS: WORST OVERALL AGENCIES

In alphabetical order

Drug Enforcement Administration: The DEA earned its "E-Delinquent" demerit by informing viewers it "does not maintain records appropriate for FOIA Library at this time," a claim that seems unlikely.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: The EEOC earned its "E-Delinquent" status by only maintaining a physical FOIA library, not even an Electronic Reading Room per the 1996 E FOIA requirements, making it impossible for the public to view previously requested records.

National Capital Planning Commission: The National Capital Planning Commission had a section reserved for frequently requested documents, but also claimed to have "none at this time."

National Protection and Programs Directorate: In a first, the National Protection and Programs Directorate, a component of the Department of Homeland Security, appears to have no FOIA page. Period.

Office of Science and Technology Policy: Despite being mandated to advise the White House on technology policy, OSTP fails to embrace 21st century FOIA practices and does not post frequently requested records online.

Are Agencies Posting FOIA Releases Online?

Dark green = "E-stars" who had the best overall performance proactively meeting the 21st Century Standard of posting all or nearly all FOIA releases online.
Light green = Agencies that earned an "honorable mention" for their performance "frequently posted records"
Yellow = Agencies that had middling performance for posting frequently requested records, and could stand improvement.
Pink = Agencies that met the bare minimum requirements for posting frequently requested records.
Red = "E-delinquents" who failed the statutory requirement to post documents "likely to become the subject of subsequent requests"

DEPARTMENTS POSTS FOIA RELEASES ON FOIA PAGES DEPARTMENTS POSTS FOIA RELEASES ON FOIA PAGES DEPARTMENTS POSTS FOIA RELEASES ON FOIA PAGES DEPARTMENTS POSTS FOIA RELEASES ON FOIA PAGES DEPARTMENTS POSTS FOIA RELEASES ON FOIA PAGES
Commodity Futures Trading Commission Yes American Battle Monuments Commission While nothing is labeled as being frequently requested, it appears that frequently requested records are posted Air Force Yes Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA) Yes, although it looks like it was only last updated in 2011, with the exception of the FOIA logs. Administrative Conference of the United States No
Department of Commerce Yes, FOIA requests searchable on FOIAonline Amtrak Yes Army Yes Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System Yes Armed Forces Retirement Home No
Department of Energy Yes, has both a DOE FOIA portal and a frequently requested page Central Intelligence Agency Yes Broadcasting Board of Governors Yes Bureau of Prisons (DOJ) Yes Committee for Purchase from People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled No
Department of State Yes, almost 100,000 docs posted; releases posted quarterly Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency Yes Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (DOJ) Yes; while the agency seems to practice good overall proactive disclosure, many of the frequently requested links are broken as of 2/25/2015. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (DHHS) Yes Consumer Financial Protection Bureau No
Environmental Protection Agency Yes, FOIA requests searchable on FOIAonline Council on Environmental Quality Yes Bureau of Indian Affairs Yes Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board Yes; it's hard to tell without a label which documents are frequently requested, but it looks like the 'other documents' section might include them. Drug Enforcement Administration DEA claims "does not maintain records appropriate for FOIA Library at this time," which seems unlikely
Federal Bureau of Investigation Yes Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency Yes Bureau of Land Management Yes Corporation for National and Community Service Yes, although it's hard to tell which are frequently requested because nothing is clearly labeled as such Equal Employment Opportunity Commission No - possibly only maintains a physical FOIA library, not even an E Reading Room per the 1996 E FOIA requirements
Federal Communications Commission Yes, FOIA requests searchable on FOIAonline Department of Defense Yes Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (DHHS) Yes Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board Yes, has only two Farm Credit Administration No
Federal Labor Relations Authority Yes, FOIA requests searchable on FOIAonline Defense Intelligence Agency Yes Defense Logistics Agency Yes Department of Health and Human Services Yes Farm Credit System Insurance Corporation No
General Services Administration Yes, FOIA requests searchable on FOIAonline Department of Education Yes Department of Agriculture Yes Department of Transportation Yes, although it's predominately FOIA logs Federal Election Commission No
Merit Systems Protection Board Yes, FOIA requests searchable on FOIAonline Department of Homeland Security Yes Department of Housing and Urban Development Yes, although most of the frequently requested links are to other pages of the website, not to documents Employee Benefits Security Administration (DOL) Yes Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council No
National Archives and Records Administration Yes, FOIA requests searchable on FOIAonline Department of Justice See OIP Department of the Interior Yes, and while the Archive is a good idea and a good model, it doesn't look to have been updated since 2012 Employment and Training Administration (DOL) Yes, but it is very minimal. Federal Maritime Commission No
Navy Yes, FOIA requests searchable on FOIAonline Department of Labor Yes. The library with links to all the component offices' frequently requested records is a nice touch. Department of Veterans Affairs Yes Farm Service Agency (USDA) Yes Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service No; this site has a lot of proactive disclosures but nothing resembling frequently requested documents
Nuclear Regulatory Commission Yes, posts lists of closed requests that link to documents when they've been released DOJ Civil Rights Division Yes Executive Office for Immigration Review (DOJ) Yes Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Yes, but it hasn't been updated since 2011 Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission No
Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation Yes, FOIA requests searchable on FOIAonline DOJ Criminal Division Yes Executive Office for United States Attorneys (DOJ) Yes, links to OIP Federal Housing Finance Agency Yes, only has two Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board No
U.S. Customs and Border Protection Yes, FOIA requests searchable on FOIAonline DOJ Office of Information Policy (OIP) Yes Export-Import Bank Yes; while the frequently requested records page is sparse, the FOIA releases page is much better - although it has not been updated since 2012 Federal Reserve System Yes Inter-American Foundation No
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Yes, FOIA requests searchable on FOIAonline DOD Inspector General Yes Federal Aviation Administration (DOT) Yes National Endowment for the Humanities Yes, but only one of the frequently requested records is not a FOIA log Millennium Challenge Corporation No
Small Business Administration Yes, FOIA requests searchable on FOIAonline Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Yes Federal Communications Commission Yes Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation Yes, it looks like a few but nothing is clearly labeled "frequently requested" National Capital Planning Commission Yes, has a section reserved for it, though it states there are "none at this time"
  Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Yes Federal Emergency Management Agency (DHS) Doesn't have own site, just links to DHS Office of the Secretary (DHHS) Yes National Indian Gaming Commission Very hard to tell if there are any because there is nothing explicitly labeled as being "frequently requested."
Federal Trade Commission Yes, and looks like updated 2/15 Federal Open Market Committee Yes Office of the Inspector General (DHHS) Yes, although it only has one record in this category National Mediation Board No
Food and Drug Administration Yes; while the frequently requested records section is sparse, the E-Reading Rooms of other components are clearly listed and provide a good amount of documents. Institute of Museum and Library Services Yes Office of Personnel Management Yes, but just FOIA logs National Protection and Programs Directorate (DHS) Our search found no FOIA site
Forest Service (USDA) Yes Internal Revenue Service Yes Overseas Private Investment Corporation Yes, it looks like a few but nothing is clearly labeled "frequently requested" Office of National Drug Control Policy No
Legal Services Corporation Yes Marines Yes Peace Corps Yes, but it only has two records that are not FOIA logs, and the last FOIA log listed is from FY2010 Office of Science and Technology Policy No
Mine Safety and Health Administration (DOL) Yes; it's a little confusing that frequently posted records are divided by year but the documents found in 'current year FOIAs' and 'FOIA Archive' are good National Institutes of Health Yes; search function is nice but results aren't necessarily previously requested documents Surface Transportation Board (DOT) Yes, has one Office of Special Counsel No
National Aeronautics and Space Administration Yes National Labor Relations Board Yes U.S. Agency for International Development Yes, only two documents not FOIA logs Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (DOL) No, links to DOL site which in turn just posts descriptions of 'hot dox' that have been requested and doesn't post any actual documents
National Credit Union Administration Yes, pretty good National Science Foundation Yes U.S. Agency for International Development Yes, only two documents not FOIA logs Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (DOL) No, links to DOL site which in turn just posts descriptions of 'hot dox' that have been requested and doesn't post any actual documents
National Endowment for the Arts Yes Occupational Safety and Health Administration (DOL) Yes, links to OIP U.S. International Trade Commission Yes, but link broken to frequently requested records page is broken Postal Regulatory Commission No, just FOIA logs
National Transportation Safety Board Yes, incling documents about 9/11 Office of Government Ethics Yes United States Secret Service Yes, but not clearly labeled or identifiable Privacy and Civil Rights Oversight Board No
National Park Service Yes, and it looks like the records are updated regularly; last updated 1/2015 Office of the U.S. Trade Representative Yes U.S. Trade and Development Agency Yes, has one Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board No
National Security Agency Yes, all frequnetly posted documents available under 'declassification and transparency' link Privacy Office (DHS) Yes; search function is nice but results aren't necessarily previously requested documents Veterans Benefits Administration (VA) links to VA Selective Service System No
Office of the Comptroller of the Currency Yes Railroad Retirement Board Yes Veterans Health Administration (VA) links to VA U.S. African Development Foundation Our search found no FOIA site
Office of the Director of National Intelligence Yes Social Security Administration Yes, but looks like last updated in 2013   U.S. Commission on Civil Rights No
Office of Management and Budget Yes Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction Yes U.S. Copyright Office No
Office of the Secretary of Defense/Joint Staff Yes Tennessee Valley Authority Yes Wage and Hour Division (DOL) No, also not available on DOL site
Securities and Exchange Commission Yes, and updated as recently as March 2015 United States Coast Guard Doesn't have own site, just links to DHS  
Transportation Security Administration (DHS) Yes United States Fish and Wildlife Service Yes, but it looks like the frequently requested records were last updated in 2013  
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (DHS) Yes  
United States Consumer Product Safety Commission Yes
United States International Boundary and Water Commission Yes, good
United States Marshals Service (DOJ) Yes
United States Postal Service Yes
All of the Presidential Libraries listed below post their FOIA processed requests to 'Online Public Acces.' A good resource, but there is a dire need to improve the sites searchabilitiy and listing capabilities.
Presidential Library — Eisenhower Yes
Presidential Library — Kennedy Yes
Presidential Library — Ford Yes
Presidential Library — Nixon Yes
Presidential Library — LBJ Yes
Presidential Library — Carter Yes
Presidential Library — Reagan Yes
Presidential Library — Bush Yes
Presidential Library — Clinton Yes
Presidential Library — W. Bush Yes

 

Key Findings

Currently, many E-Delinquent FOIA offices waste valuable resources by refusing to embrace the open government principle of posting FOIA releases online. Many FOIA experts currently spend valuable time searching for, reviewing, redacting, and releasing documents to an individual in response to a FOIA request, only to print out an analog version of the document, which may never even be opened — much less published — by its recipient. Posting information digitally will guarantee that the fruits of the requester's and FOIA office's labor will become available to the wider public, and that the agency won't have to conduct a similar search and review for another requester in the future.

Despite static resources, and frequently increasing FOIA backlogs, FOIA "E-Stars" like the Department of State and the FBI have proven that by embracing FOIA's principles of proactive disclosure and twenty-first century technology, even agency FOIA programs marred by over-secrecy (FBI) and exceedingly long wait times (State) can succeed at vastly expanding the amount of information the public has access to, and guarantee that FOIA resources are not wasted processing documents that become lost, gathering dust in desk drawers.

The websites of other E Stars, including FOIAOnline.gov and Online Public Access, the electronic NARA catalogue where Presidential library records are collectively made available, successfully post massive volumes of FOIA releases. The websites, however, are in need of a facelift. To locate a specific agency's records on FOIAOnline.gov, a user must determine and enter a search term likely to retrieve the agency's records. It would be preferable if there was a search function guaranteed to retrieve all of an agency's FOIA responses, rather than requiring the user to enter a broad term they hope will encompass all of the agency's FOIA releases.

Online Public Access similarly posts an enormous amount of data from all the presidential libraries conveniently searchable in one spot. However, the NARA site does not currently have a feature that allows users to search specifically for FOIA releases. Neither of these sites has a guide for effective searching, much less the "spread sheet style" ability to list and sort documents by a variety of fields (including date created) that is found in the Department of State's FOIA reading room. While FOIAonline and Online Public Access have already done the heavy lift of uploading FOIA releases online, they must now make the data easily searchable and browsable by their users.

While the idea of posting all released documents online is broadly embraced by the requester community, some have postulated (usually journalists) that posting documents online — especially in real time as they are released to FOIA requesters — may be detrimental to the investigative process or the ability of a journalist to get an exclusive. However, the fundamental principle guiding open government is that a document release to one requester constitutes a release to the public as a whole. Additionally, FOIA request logs are already posted online, providing the public an idea of what's been requested, released, and who filed the request; a natural follow-through is to actually post the documents themselves. Perhaps the best method that addresses both journalistic and FOIA advocates concerns' is to require the documents be posted online, but not immediately. Currently, the Department of State posts FOIA'd documents quarterly.

 

Excuses Agencies Give for Poor E-Performance

Justice Department guidance undermines the statute. Currently, the FOIA stipulates that documents "likely to become the subject of subsequent requests" must be posted by agencies somewhere in their electronic reading rooms. The Department of Justice's Office of Information Policy defines these records as "frequently requested records… or those which have been released three or more times to FOIA requesters." Of course, it is time-consuming for agencies to develop a system that keeps track of how often a record has been released, which is in part why agencies rarely do so and are often in breach of the law. Troublingly, both the current House and Senate FOIA bills include language that codifies the instructions from the Department of Justice.

The National Security Archive believes the addition of this "three or more times" language actually harms the intent of the Freedom of Information Act as it will give agencies an easy excuse ("not requested three times yet!") not to proactively post documents that agency FOIA offices have already spent time, money, and energy processing. We have formally suggested alternate language requiring that agencies generally post "all records, regardless of form or format that have been released in response to a FOIA request."

Disabilities Compliance. Despite the E-FOIA Act, many government agencies do not embrace the idea of posting their FOIA responses online. The most common reason agencies give is that it is difficult to post documents in a format that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, also referred to as being "508 compliant," and the 1998 Amendments to the Rehabilitation Act that require federal agencies "to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities."

E-Star agencies, however, have proven that 508 compliance is no barrier when the agency has a will to post. All documents posted on FOIAonline are 508 compliant, as are the documents posted by the Department of Defense and the Department of State. In fact, every document created electronically by the US government after 1998 should already be 508 compliant. Even old paper records that are scanned to be processed through FOIA can be made 508 compliant with just a few clicks in Adobe Acrobat, according to this Department of Homeland Security guide (essentially OCRing the text, and including information about where non-textual fields appear). Even if agencies are insistent it is too difficult to OCR older documents that were scanned from paper, they cannot use that excuse with digital records.

Privacy. Another commonly articulated concern about posting FOIA releases online is that doing so could inadvertently disclose private information from "first person" FOIA requests. This is a valid concern, and this subset of FOIA requests should not be posted online. (The Justice Department identified "first party" requester rights in 1989. Essentially agencies cannot use the b(6) privacy exemption to redact information if a person requests it for him or herself. An example of a "first person" FOIA would be a person's request for his own immigration file.)

Cost and Waste of Resources. There is also a belief that there is little public interest in the majority of FOIA requests processed, and hence it is a waste of resources to post them. This thinking runs counter to the governing principle of the Freedom of Information Act: that government information belongs to US citizens, not US agencies. As such, the reason that a person requests information is immaterial as the agency processes the request; the "interest factor" of a document should also be immaterial when an agency is required to post it online. Some think that posting FOIA releases online is not cost effective. In fact, the opposite is true. It's not cost effective to spend tens (or hundreds) of person hours to search for, review, and redact FOIA requests only to mail it to the requester and have them slip it into their desk drawer and forget about it. That is a waste of resources. The released document should be posted online for any interested party to utilize. This will only become easier as FOIA processing systems evolve to automatically post the documents they track. The State Department earned its "E-Star" status demonstrating this very principle, and spent no new funds and did not hire contractors to build its Electronic Reading Room, instead it built a self-sustaining platform that will save the agency time and money going forward.

In general, posting documents as they're released underscores that these documents belong to the public; enriches debates on important policy issues; eliminates processing of duplicate FOIA requests; and — most importantly in this era of austerity — saves money.

Support for this FOIA Audit was generously provided by the CS Fund/Warsh Mott Legacy and the Open Society Foundations. Support for previous FOIA Audits and Open Government Surveys was also provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

 

home | about | documents | news | publications | FOIA | research | internships | search | donate | mailing list

Contents of this website Copyright 1995-2016 National Security Archive. All rights reserved.
Terms and conditions for use of materials found on this website.