(January 22, 2013) – As you may know, OpenTheGovernment.org has been running a project that chronicles the experience of using FOIAonline as compared with other agencies’ processing systems. FOIAonline is a shared service that makes it easier for the public to make and track FOIA requests. Our assistant director, Amy Bennett, explained the project to the audience and offered a range of grades for FOIAonline and other agencies during a panel at last week's symposium, “Transparency in the Obama Administration: A Fourth Year Assessment,” held by the Collaboration on Government Secrecy at the Washington College of Law.
As you can see by clicking through the presentation slides, FOIAonline earned high marks for how easy it makes it for users to make requests and how it confirms to users that the request has been received. FOIAonline also gets credit for giving users a date to expect a response from the agency. The date provided is not a real projection of how long it will take to process the request: it is simply the 20 working day deadline written into the law. FOIAonline loses points because the discrepancy is not noted, agencies regularly do not meet the due date, and users are given no update on when a response can actually be expected.
FOIAonline's scores were particularly low on how agencies used the system to make documents available. As Amy described during her presentation, the low grades are in part a reaction to agencies failure to take advantage of one of the system's biggest assets: all documents that are released using FOIAonline can be made available to the public. It is up to the agency to actually post the documents. Released documents should be placed in an online repository that users can search to find documents prior to making their own requests. Making released documents generally available could cut down on the number of requests sent to agencies, and help make sure agencies only have to process a request for any document once. In our experience, however, documents that have been released through FOIAonline have not gone up online, and have been nearly impossible to find using the search tool.