Interior tests system to bring order to FOIA

Submitting Freedom of Information Act requests to the Interior Department can leave you feeling a bit like Forrest Gump with a box of chocolates: You never know what you're going to get.

Different people often file identical FOIA requests to different Interior offices — and they often get different responses. One bureau might determine that a requested document is off-limits to the public, while another may hand it out without reservation. One regional office might waive the FOIA request fees but another will require payment.

Enabling the department to respond with one voice — and at the same time enabling those closest to relevant documents to do the searching — is the goal of a Web-enabled database system that Interior is piloting.

The system, called FOIA Track, was developed by Document Systems Inc. (DSI), a Washington, D.C., document management company. It enables FOIA officers to create centralized electronic files that can be accessed by officials throughout the department. When one Interior office receives a request, a FOIA officer can search the database to see whether it's already been received and handled by another office.

For Interior, a decentralized agency with hundreds of offices handling FOIA requests, the pilot system gets the department on the same page, said Sue Ellen Floca, FOIA and Privacy Act officer at Interior's office of the secretary.

"We receive FOIA requests all over the place," she said, and often the "right hand doesn't know what the other is doing." With the new system, "we can see what decisions have been made, and we can be consistent."

Floca used the system for several months on her office's local-area network before the pilot project, involving nearly all of Interior's bureaus, was launched in October. After a successful six months, the department began a second, 18-month test in April with several regional offices added to the system. The plan is to have an agencywide system in place by October 2002. "Its purpose is to give us the functionality of a central tracking system, even though our FOIA tracking system is so decentralized," Floca said.

Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service is one of the bureaus whose regional offices are using the system. The Fish and Wildlife Service itself is decentralized, with seven regional offices and a number of field stations. Johnny Hunt, the service's FOIA officer, said the system will enable the service to continue acting on FOIA requests without worrying about duplicating the efforts of other bureaus.

Ultimately, it's best if local officials handle FOIA requests, Hunt said. "The people who know most about the request are at the resource level," he said.

FOIA Track is a Microsoft Corp. Access database designed to handle regulations for FOIA requests. When a request is received — typically on paper — a FOIA officer electronically scans it, and the system captures the request word-for-word using optical character recognition technology. Having the full text of the request provides for more extensive searching, said Joel Limerick, DSI's president. FOIA requests can be searched by number, name, location or other variables. It cost Interior just $22,000 to enable Web access to the system, according to Limerick, who said commercial off-the-shelf FOIA packages can be much more expensive.

The system is hosted by Emergent Technologies Inc., a Reston, Va.-based application services provider. It resides on a Citrix Systems Inc. server managed by Emergent at its data warehouse in Reston. Interior officials can access FOIA Track using a desktop Web browser and a password.

In addition to centralizing FOIA files, the system also enables officials to edit documents before they are released. And instead of bringing proposed edits to the Solicitor's Office for approval, they can be checked online more quickly, Floca said. Another benefit is the ability to generate the mandated annual FOIA report, a publication that is not exactly scintillating reading, Hunt said. "If you ever have a sleepless night, it's a wonderful thing to look at," he said.

The report, which includes information such as the number or requests received, the number approved or denied, fees collected and more, takes months of manual effort to put together, Floca said. The new system will enable the "number crunching" to happen automatically, she said.

MORE INFO

Implementing e-FOIA

In December, the General Accounting Office reported on how well 25 federal

agencies were implementing the 1996 Electronic Freedom of Information Act

Amendments, which require agencies to provide online access to government

documents, via "electronic reading rooms," and to information about FOIA.

GAO found:

In fiscal 1999, the 25 agencies provided the requested records for

83 percent of about 1.9 million FOIA requests received.

All 25 agencies had established electronic reading rooms, but not

all required documents were accessible.

All 25 agencies had a FOIA Web page.

1 9 of the agencies had a link from their home pages to the FOIA page.

13 of the agencies offered the ability to submit FOIA requests electronically.

Source: General Accounting Office

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