Justice accused of hindering multi-agency FOIA website

Open government watchdog groups are calling upon the White House to help resolve an apparent power struggle between the Justice Department and three other federal agencies over the creation of new websites for consolidating Freedom of Information Act requests and information.

The tussle is over FOIA.gov, recently created by Justice, and a new FOIA Web portal being developed by the Environmental Protection Agency with assistance from the Commerce Department and the National Archives & Records Administration.

Justice’s FOIA.gov, which is up and running, offers performance data on how FOIA requests are being handled governmentwide and contains links to agency FOIA reports. On the other hand, the developing multi-agency FOIA Web portal, expected to go public in October, would allow users to submit and track multiple agency FOIA requests from a central location.

According to the watchdog groups, DOJ officials may have hindered broader participation in the three-agency FOIA Web portal project.

“We understand some in the Department of Justice have discouraged agencies from participating in the FOIA portal pilot project, suggesting its website, www.FOIA.gov, offers a better option with its newly-added links to all agency websites,” the watchdog groups wrote to Cass Sunstein, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Policy, in a March 19 letter.

However, the groups noted that FOIA.gov serves a different function than the FOIA portal, and only the Web portal would provide a central location for filing and tracking FOIA requests. The watchdog groups included OMBWatch and the Project on Government Oversight.

“We write to reaffirm our strong commitment to the FOIA portal developed by the EPA, with the assistance of Commerce and the NARA,” the groups wrote in the letter. “The FOIA portal offers the best hope for improving the administration’s compliance with the FOIA and affording the public the broadest access to government documents.”

As a multi-agency effort, the FOIA portal also could reduce processing costs, support compliance and improve customer relations, the groups added.

At the same time, Justice’s FOIA.gov does provide benefits to the public and ideally, both websites should work together, the groups wrote.

“FOIA.gov and the FOIA portal should work seamlessly to give agencies and the public better tools to manage FOIA processing, track requests, identify bottlenecks, and push for improvements. The government should support both by developing both,” concluded the groups.

The letter also was signed by OpentheGovernment.org, American Society of News Editors, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Meanwhile, Melanie Ann Pustay, director of Justice’s Office of Information Policy, defended FOIA.gov’s usefulness as a “comprehensive FOIA website” at a March 21 hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology, Information, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform.

“FOIA.Gov has revolutionized the way in which FOIA data is made available to the public,” Pustay said at the hearing.

Initially envisioned as a graphic dashboard to illustrate statistics collected from agency annual FOIA reports, it has expanded its capabilities and allows users to search and sort the data, to compare agencies with each other, and over time, she said.

The FOIA.gov also is popular, with more than a million visitors since it launched in March 2011, she added.

Pustay added that DOJ is “watching with interest” the EPA’s project with Commerce and NARA.

Based on Pustay’s statements at the hearing, a POGO staffer reporting on the hearing surmised that DOJ was not ready to fully support the FOIA Web portal project spearheaded by the EPA, Commerce and NARA. “Pustay seemed reluctant to put her full support behind EPA’s portal,” Andrew Wyner, POGO intern, wrote in the watchdog group’s blog on March 24.

But in order for the central FOIA Web portal to succeed, Congress should encourage every federal agency to participate in it, Sean Moulton, director of federal information policy at OMB Watch, said at the hearing.

Full participation by federal agencies in a central FOIA portal could yield up to $200 million in savings over five years, Miriam Nisbit, director of NARA’s Office of Government Information Services, said at the hearing.

A first-year investment of $1.3 million, followed by $3 million over the next four years (a total of $4.3 million over five years), could save the government an estimated $40 million a year in FOIA processing costs, she said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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