Written byWhitney Blair Wyckoff
A group of federal agencies is launching a pilot to publish all documents released through individual FOIA requests.
As it stands, the Department of Justice suggests that agencies post FOIA responses online when they receive three or more requests for a document — a standard not always followed in government. The six-month pilot will explore the challenges of publishing documents after only one request, according to a recent announcement.
National Security Archive FOIA Coordinator Nate Jones applauded the move.
“I think this has the potential to be a one of the few tangible FOIA improvements I can think of from this administration — if it goes through,” he said.
Jones said, if the pilot is successful, it would help fill the gap left by a new FOIA portal that officials debuted this spring to mixed reviews from open government groups. “This actually does with the FOIA portal will not do,” he said. “This is actually posting documents online.”
He said some have argued that if this practice became more widespread among agencies, it could lead to fewer journalists making FOIA requests. But Jones said he doesn’t think the argument holds water. He said agencies might not post the requested documents at the same time the requester receives them, and he said that many agencies post their FOIA logs online, so reporters’ requests are already available.
“Fundamentally, it’s not the ‘Get A Scoop Act,'” he said. “It’s the Freedom of Information Act. And reporter scoops should not be the driving force of FOIA policy. It should be getting as much information out as possible.”
The pilot will involve the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Millennium Challenge Corp., as well as components of the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the and National Archives and Records Administration, according to the announcement.
When asked about the National Archives’ involvement in the pilot, spokeswoman Laura Diachenko said in an email the pilot would only apply to FOIA requests for the agency’s own operational records — not archival records from other federal agencies and from presidential libraries.
“NARA expects to begin posting all such FOIA releases by August 1, 2015, if not sooner, on its FOIAonline portal. And our Office of General Council will continue to post in its FOIA Reading Room,” she said in an email.
A representative from the EPA said the agency already posts its FOIA responses on its FOIAonline portal.
According to a recent report from the Justice Department, the government was sitting on 159,741 backlogged records requests by the end of fiscal year 2014. That’s a nearly two-thirds increase over the year before. FOIA-related activities cost the government $461 million last fiscal year, the report also said.
The Justice Department did not respond to requests for more information on the pilot.
In recent months, Congress has scrutinized the government’s looming backlog of FOIA requests and has considered legislation to improve the FOIA process. And just last week, the Department of Homeland Security released the government’s first FOIA app.
“The results of this six-month pilot program will be made available to the public, and we intend to be transparent about the pilots and their implementation by participating agencies,” the announcement of the pilot said.
The public can send comments about the pilots to firstname.lastname@example.org.