Lawmakers largely ignore Web at FOIA hearing

OpenTheGovernment.org report on FOIA plans

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Lawmakers who held an oversight hearing to assess the recent presidential executive order aimed at improving disclosure of government information did not emphasize the role that information technology should play in meeting requirements.

The July 26 hearing – timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the passage of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) – featured witnesses from Congress, the Government Accountability Office and the Justice Department. The witnesses barely used the words “technology,” “electronic” or “online” in their testimony. The House Government Reform Committee's Government Management, Finance and Accountability Subcommittee held the hearing.

Only the final panel, comprised of open-government advocates, discussed the importance of IT in public access to government information.

President Bush's Dec. 14, 2005, executive order states that each agency must appoint a chief FOIA officer who “shall examine the agency's use of information technology in responding to FOIA requests, including without limitation, the tracking of FOIA requests and communication with requesters.”

Agencies were also required to submit FOIA improvement plans to the attorney general and the Office of Management Budget on June 14, and then make those plans publicly accessible.

“We do get a sense from many of the agency plans that, despite a chief FOIA officer having been appointed in response to the executive order, the FOIA programs -- and I would add the records management programs -- are often treated like the proverbial step-child,” Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, said at the hearing. “Agencies tell in these plans of not having money for scanners or copiers.”

OpenTheGovernment.org and other organizations promoting openness released a report July 4 that evaluates a sample of the agency plans.

E-FOIA, which involves receiving and responding to requests electronically, is unlikely to be improved, according to the overall analysis, McDermott testified.

Many of the plans cite the need to increase the application of technology in complying with the FOIA process. The Defense Department recognized serious deficiencies and recommended changes to FOIA software, Web sites and electronic document control systems. The Department of Health and Human Services emphasized the need to improve Web-based aspects of the FOIA system.

Some agencies are making good on what has largely been just talk about technology.

The State Department is planning to transfer declassified information to its Web site or to requestors in electronic format, according to the OpenTheGovernment report. The department “is currently investigating IT solutions for transferring this data from the classified to the unclassified environment and plans to work with OMB, DOJ and the intelligence community to resolve this and other public access issues,” the report states.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s plan lists IT as one of five key areas for review, stating that the agency will strive to continue making good use of its new FOIAXpress automated tracking and processing system.

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