Editor's Note

Finding savings in FOIA

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FCW focuses strictly on federal IT -- that's what the F stands for, after all -- but good ideas can come from anywhere. And a new report from New York is worthwhile reading for anyone working to make government run better.

A good-government group called Reinvent Albany took a detailed look at Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, requests made to the Empire State's Department of Environmental Conservation. The goal? To show how agencies can use public demand to decide where to focus their open-data efforts.

The report, titled "Listening to FOIL," found that 55 percent of the requests pertained to spills on specific properties. In other words, the agency could cut its request-processing load in half by opening up a single dataset!

At the federal Freedom of Information Act level, a finding like that could translate into serious savings. The Center for Effective Government's most recent FOIA report found that the Department of Homeland Security, for example, has the equivalent of 398 full-time employees devoted to FOIA requests. A previous report showed that the cost per FOIA request ranged from $136 (at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) to $8,861 (at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission).

And given that agencies already log their FOIA requests, running similar analyses would be a relatively simple proposition. In this age of big data and analytics, let's not overlook the opportunities in small and manageable datasets.

None of this is to suggest that Reinvent Albany was the first to think of triaging government data. President Barack Obama issued a memo on this topic on his first full day in office. The federal FOIA Web portal now publishes requests and the data released in response from several key agencies, and the Data.gov team has worked across government to focus on publishing data the public desires, not just "opening" what is easiest to upload.

In general, though, agencies still have a long way to go. Reducing the need for FOIA requests not only makes for more transparent government, it can also reduce costs and workload to free up precious agency resources. The New York report is a good reminder that we should be looking for efficiencies wherever we can find them.

About the Author

Troy K. Schneider is editor-in-chief of FCW. Connect with him on Twitter: @troyschneider.

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