Lawmakers downplay IT’s role in FOIA

Some agencies put innovative tech into their FOIA plans

Lawmakers have not yet addressed the role that information technology should play in meeting the requirements of the recent presidential executive order to improve disclosure of government information, even though agency officials and open government advocates agree that IT is necessary.

The House Government Reform Committee’s Government Management, Finance and Accountability Subcommittee held a July 26 hearing to assess the progress made in complying with the executive order. Witnesses from Congress, the Government Accountability Office and the Justice Department testified, but the panelists rarely referred to IT. Only the final panel, comprised of open-government advocates, discussed IT’s importance in improving public access to government information.

President Bush’s executive order, issued Dec. 14, 2005, states that each agency must appoint a chief Freedom of Information Act 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.”

The order also required agencies to submit FOIA improvement plans to the attorney general and the Office of Management Budget by June 14 and then make those plans publicly accessible. OpenTheGovernment.org and other organizations promoting openness released a report July 4 that evaluates a sample of the agency plans.

At the hearing, OpenTheGovernment. org Director Patrice McDermott said the plans show that agencies seem to place little emphasis on making information available.

“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 stepchild,” she said. “Agencies tell in these plans of not having money for scanners or copiers.”

GAO officials said evaluating IT use was beyond the scope of their testimony.

“Our statement focused on trends in FOIA processing and on one aspect of agencies’ response to the executive order, i.e., their plans for reducing or eliminating the backlog,” said Linda Koontz, GAO’s information management issues director.

Koontz said GAO is in the early stages of responding to a request from Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.), the subcommittee’s chairman, concerning FOIA and agency implementation of the executive order.

Some agencies are finding innovative ways to use technology for information freedom, according to the OpenTheGovernment report.

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

McDermott said the hearing’s program was not set up to adequately address the issue of IT. She said she hopes lawmakers request a follow-up hearing to explore the electronic aspects of FOIA.

“It is apparent that agencies are having problems moving in that direction,” because of the lack of leadership, funding and accountability — or a combination of factors, she said. “This hearing wasn’t the one to hold their feet to the fire on the electronic issues, but it certainly does need to be addressed.”

FOIA bills fail to delve into e-compliance

OpenTheGovernment.org Director Patrice McDermott said legislation designed to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act does not address compliance with the decade-old E-FOIA amendments, which call for agencies to electronically receive and respond to FOIA requests.

Last year, Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) proposed the Open Government Act, which would require agencies to “establish a telephone line or Internet service that provides information about the status of a request to the person making the request using [an] assigned tracking number.”

The Faster FOIA Act, another bill sponsored by Leahy and Cornyn, would create a commission to make recommendations for full FOIA compliance. However, the text of the bill makes no mention of technology, the Internet or E-FOIA.

Sponsors of the House version of the Faster FOIA Act say the bill indirectly addresses the technology issue.

“It calls for a commission to look at ways to produce this information and obviously that calls for technology to be a very important part of it,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who introduced the bill with Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). “I don’t think it uses the magic word ‘technology,’” but most people would infer that technology is an element of the solution, he said.

— Aliya Sternstein

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