Justice supports FOIA portal

The Justice Department says it supports a multi-agency effort to create an online portal for Freedom of Information Act requests.

A department spokeswoman issued a statement on March 27 in response to a story published the previous day which reported on allegations from watchdog groups that the department was hindering the effort. The groups said DOJ was suspected of discouraging other agencies from participating in the FOIA Web portal development project led by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Justice officials tried to steer agencies toward the department’s own FOIA.gov website, the watchdogs also charged. FOIA.gov primarily compiles multiple agency performance statistics on FOIA requests.

Melanie Ann Pustay, director of Justice’s Office of Information Policy, said in the statement that her office “supports” all other agency efforts to improve the administration of FOIA.

“In the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines all agencies were directed to look for ways to increase efficiencies and to explore greater use of technology to improve the FOIA process. The Office of Information Policy supports all agencies’ efforts to further that directive,” Pustay said in the statement.

Her office “is also working individually with EPA as it is developing its FOIA module and looks forward to seeing the project develop. All innovations in FOIA administration are welcome,” Pustay said in the emailed statement.

Asked about the allegations that DOJ officials may have urged other agencies not to participate in the multi-agency FOIA Web portal, Gina Talamona, a spokeswoman for Pustay, said those claims were “wrong.” Talamona declined to provide a more detailed response, other than what was contained in the e-mailed statement.

Pustay also said in the statement she has convened an inter-agency working group to serve as a forum for a discussion on how technology can be used for FOIA.

The watchdog groups making the allegations included the Project on Government Oversight, OMB Watch and OpentheGovernment.org.

They noted in a letter to the White House on March 19 that DOJ’s FOIA.gov and the EPA-led upcoming FOIA Web portal serve different functions. While the Justice website serves mostly to highlight mass performance data, the EPA-designed website offers users a central location to submit and track FOIA requests for multiple agencies.

Ideally, the EPA-designed FOIA Web portal would be supported and utilized by all federal agencies because that would make it most effective and efficient, the watchdog groups said.

Justice officials did not immediately respond when asked if the department would participate in the EPA-led FOIA Web portal and allow users to submit and track FOIA requests through that portal.

However, Talamona said that Justice recently developed a similar submission and tracking capability on the department’s own FOIA.gov website.

“OIP just launched an online request portal which can be used to make requests to the senior management offices of the Department of Justice, as well as to make administrative appeals. Through this online portal requesters can also track the status of their requests anytime, using their personalized account, and can receive their responsive documents through the portal,” Talamona said.

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