Former FOIA officer worries new bill poses IT challenges

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A House bill that aims to strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act ombudsmen may generate some IT headaches, a former FDA FOIA official told lawmakers.

Frederick Sadler, a former FOIA officer for the Food and Drug Administration, told members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee during a hearing Friday that while the bill introduced earlier this month would improve some processes within the Office of Government Information Services, it could create difficulties for other federal agencies.

The bill, introduced by former committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and senior Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, would establish a single online portal for FOIA requests. Currently, no such portal exists, although several large government units, including the Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration and the U.S. Navy, use the FOIAonline portal to track FOIA requests.

Sadler said the requirement for the universal portal is “laudable,” though fraught with complications. To name a few: The volume of requests to a central portal would be so large that it could require a new division. He also said individuals who are requesting their own records may need to include an original signature, not a duplicate.

He added that some request letters might not be able to be included in the portal because requesters included medical data or their Social Security number, particularly within Social Security Administration or Department of Veterans Affairs requests.

“There’s an issue about when these would be disseminated and how that database, if it transmits information to the federal government, how that would feed back to a central repository for posting,” said Sadler, who’s worked in government for 40 years.

But National Security Archive’s FOIA Project Director Nate Jones told FedScoop many of Sadler’s arguments did not hold water.

“A lot of Fred’s concerns have already been overcome by other FOIA agencies,” said Jones, who did not testify at the hearing. “It’s just up to the lower-achieving agencies to catch up.”

He said FOIAonline is “working well,” and its members post requests and releases online. And he pointed to the State Department and the FBI, which also post FOIA releases. “It’s possible to do what he says is impossible,” Jones said. Jones added that GSA’s 18F was working on streamlining the FOIA request process and that he has not heard it suggested that the universal portal would require a new division.

If it passes, the bill would require agencies to frequently post information online in a public accessible format — a move that would codify an existing requirement.

But during the hearing, Sadler discussed how posting FOIA documents would make it difficult to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that records on agencies’ websites are in a software that would allow the information to be “verbalized” for the blind. While he noted government records are often already in that form, agencies would have to convert records that are submitted to them.

He pointed to a situation during his career when the agency had to post a letter in a Word document that referenced “allergy-enduing ingredients.”

“Unfortunately, the phrase ‘allergy-inducing ingredient’ was mistranslated by the optical scanner as ‘orgy-inducing ingredient,’ which was publicity the firm couldn’t buy,” he said.

The document had to come down immediately, he said. Unless there are more resources for IT and FOIA programs, “I don’t see how they can keep up,” he said.

But Jones said Word documents are already digitally readable and compliant with that provision of the act. He added that agencies often use the ADA as an excuse not to post documents online.

“It’s a red herring,” Jones said.

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Agencies, big data, data analytics, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Departments, FOIA, FOIAonline, Food and Drug Administration, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Tech
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