Tepid response to 18F’s quietly released openFOIA site

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Developers at the 18F digital services shop showcased a new Freedom of Information Act site to a group of open government advocates Wednesday — and the reaction has been lukewarm.

OpenFOIA, now in its alpha stage, aims to make it easier to submit FOIA requests to various agencies. Developed in conjunction with the Justice Department, the current version is essentially an update to FOIA.gov, which lets users search for information on how to file requests in the federal government.

“Hopefully it will eventually go well beyond this,” Nate Jones, director of the FOIA Project for the National Security Archive, told FedScoop in an email.

Some transparency advocates have hoped the government would create one place where users could submit all their requests — more like the FOIAonline portal, which allows users to file requests for various participating government agencies. Indeed, a FOIA reform bill that’s working its way through Congress would require the government set up such a site.

However, openFOIA does not quite reach that mark. Jones said the site’s underlying problem is that 18F is only able to rely on the FOIA websites and methods that agencies currently use — even if those systems are subpar — and not create new processes.

“18F is not able to fundamentally change the ways FOIAs are requested, processed or posted,” he said in an email. “In that sense, 18F’s claim that it can make ‘hard things possible’ has, for now, been prevented by the federal bureaucracy.”

Sean Moulton at the Center for Effective Government echoed Jones’ concerns. While the demo site is “better than anything that’s out there right now,” he said, “what we were hoping for was kind of this one-stop shop where someone could submit a FOIA to any agency.”

He said 18F had explained several technical challenges to releasing a portal advocates had originally envisioned. But he said he remains hopeful that it could be done as the group releases subsequent versions of the site.

Abby Paulson of OpenTheGovernment.org, which was also represented at the meeting yesterday, told FedScoop her group has not taken a stance on the project.

“In general, we’re pretty supportive of the open government partnership process,” she said.

Meanwhile, in a blog post published on Medium, Nick Sinai, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and a former deputy chief technology officer of the U.S., was optimistic the site would be a jumping off point for further innovation.

“In the long-run, imagine this service expanding to include a single place to learn about FOIA, initiate and track a request (like package tracking on FedEx), have open conversations with a federal agency about improving a request, and find previously released FOIA materials,” wrote Sinai.

Last year, 18F published a blog post about its efforts to make the FOIA process easier. Authors said they wanted to build tools that would “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.”

Ori Hoffer, an 18F spokesman, confirmed his group “soft launched” openFOIA and received “a lot of feedback from stakeholders.”

“What this first step attempts to do is make the FOIA process less confusing for users unfamiliar with the process,” he said in an email. “DOJ, GSA, and their partners are eager to learn about what works best, or what can be improved, based on user’s experience.”

Hoffer said the site would continue to be developed and improved upon. 18F encourages users to send their comments to 18f-foia@gsa.gov.

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18F, Agencies, General Services Administration (GSA), Government IT News, open government
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