Agencies wrangle with E-FOIA requests

Thanks in part to the Electronic Freedom of Information Act, the American public wants ever greater access to government information. In 1999 alone, the number of requests for documents and other information more than doubled for the top 25 federal agencies, according to the General Accounting Office.

Agencies are struggling to keep up. In a review released in March, GAO officials found that although all 25 of the agencies it examined had established electronic reading rooms as required, the agencies have yet to make all required documents electronically available. E-FOIA has been in effect almost five years. Agencies also have not been filing adequate reports to the Justice Department detailing their E-FOIA compliance efforts, GAO officials found.

The volume of demand for information is pushing federal agencies to rely increasingly on automation. About a third of the major agencies surveyed reported using electronic systems to automate their processing of E-FOIA requests, GAO said.

Electronic equipment and software is being used to convert paper documents to electronic form, to "redact" or remove sensitive information from documents before making them public, to route requests for information to the correct offices and to operate electronic reading rooms. E-FOIA's emphasis on openness has created a growing market for software vendors. The latest entry is an E-FOIA software suite developed by Vredenburg Inc. The Reston, Va., company says its "VeFOIA" software can handle information requests from their origin online to the delivery of the requested documents and the entry of E-FOIA statistics in the annual report to the Justice Department.

The rising volume of information requests makes the advantages of automation clear, said Larry Den, Vredenburg's vice president for information technology. For example, the Vredenburg system automatically tracks the progress of requests, permitting people who file them to check online to see if progress is being made.

The system also provides "scoping," or the ability to generate questions that narrow the scope of the search for information — and hence the work required — to fill an E-FOIA request.

The VeFOIA system retains copies of documents that have been redacted and released to fill earlier requests. In addition to avoiding the work of redacting a document more than once, retaining redacted copies can prevent "the mosaic effect," Den said. That occurs when agencies redact documents multiple times, differently each time. Comparing the different versions often reveals information intended to be kept secret.

The Vredenburg system also automatically sends copies of frequently requested documents to agency electronic reading rooms, where they are available to the public, as required by E-FOIA. That can be a benefit for the public and for agencies. Posting information in electronic reading rooms makes it easy for the public to find. For agencies, "the more you put in the reading room, the fewer requests you get" and have to process, Den said.

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