State Department ranks high in audit of online records rule

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News that presumed presidential contender Hillary Clinton used a private email account while she served as secretary of State has put the department’s open government practices in the spotlight. But a new audit of how well agencies are adhering to a 1996 law to post certain records online has given State some good news.

National Security Archive, an open government advocacy group affiliated with George Washington University, named the State Department an “E-Star” for its online postings of records released under the Freedom of Information Act.

“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,” National Security Archive said in a release about the audit.

Under the 1996 Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments, or E-FOIA, agencies must open up key sets of records online, offer directions on how to make FOIA requests and proactively post online records of significant public interest, the group said.

“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,” researchers said in a release.

Overall, other agencies did not fare as well as State in the audit. About 40 percent of the federal offices surveyed failed to meet the legislation’s requirements, according to the National Security Archive, which has conducted 14 audits to test whether agencies are following FOIA rules since 2002.

For the study, researchers looked at 165 federal offices, particularly those agencies with chief FOIA officers and subagencies that handle more than 500 FOIA requests a year. Of those, they found that 67 had online FOIA request libraries that were regularly updated and well populated.

National Security Archive listed the “E-Stars,” the best overall agencies, and the “E-Delinquents,” the worst overall agencies. Nate Jones, director of the National Security Archive’s FOIA Project, told FedScoop some of the list’s worst agencies actually have good FOIA offices.

“Many are going to get a jolt” when they see the report — and some will likely ask for funding to address their shortcomings, he said.

Best agencies:

  • Department of Energy
  • Department of State
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • 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 Corp., Department of the Navy, General Services Administration, Small Business Administration, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and Federal Communications Commission)
  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Worst agencies:

  • Drug Enforcement Administration
  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
  • National Capital Planning Commission
  • National Protection and Programs Directorate
  • Office of Science and Technology Policy

While the Department of Homeland Security, which encompasses National Protection and Programs Directorate, does has a FOIA page, Jones said the directorate still merits a spot on the list.

“Because NPPD doesn’t have a FOIA page (unlike all other DHS components that received over 500 FOIA requests in FY 2013), someone searching for NPPD’s FOIA releases would have an almost impossible time finding them,” he said in a subsequent email. “Additionally, the DHS central FOIA library includes just 21 ‘frequently requested records,’ and it is extremely difficult for a member of the public to discern which, if any, are from NPPD.”

Matt Barden, a spokesman for the DEA, said the agency had not had a chance to review the report. “Once we do, we will look into where we’re deficient,” he said.

Meanwhile OSTP, defended its record on FOIA compliance.

“OSTP has received commendations on its FOIA program from many independent evaluators, including the Department of Justice, Congress, and civil society. The Department of Justice issued OSTP’s FOIA program a report card with green lights across the board. The House Oversight Committee awarded OSTP an A+ for its FOIA operations in the House’s FOIA Management Scorecard. And the Center for Effective Government highlighted OSTP and its FOIA regulations as an example of recommended best practices,” the White House Office of Science and Tech Policy told FedScoop on background.

OSTP also said that it posts its annual chief FOIA officer reports in its online reading room, and materials of interest to the public — like fact sheets, public remarks, reports and budget materials — in its online press room.

The remaining three agencies did not offer their responses on the record by deadline.

“The presumption of openness requires the presumption of posting,” National Security Archive Director Tom Blanton said in the release. “For the new generation, if it’s not online, it does not exist.

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Departments, Government IT News, open government, State Department
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