IT, intranets would improve FOIA processes, attorney general says

A review of agency plans to improve Freedom of Information Act operations by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales found that many want to adopt information technology -- including internal Web sites -- for expediting requests.

“Agencies have enthusiastically embraced the area of advanced technology and automation as a means of improving their FOIA operations, most particularly as a way of meeting the challenges faced by those with backlogs of complex FOIA requests,” the report states.

A December 2005 executive order directed the attorney general to issue a FOIA report based on an assessment of individual agency implementation plans and fiscal 2005 annual agency FOIA reports. Gonzales submitted his report to the president Oct. 16.

Notably, two agency plans included intranet FOIA Web sites for their employees, the report states.

The Interior and Commerce departments have taken a step that “can increase an agency’s efficiency, though improved communications among its FOIA personnel has perhaps its greatest value in bridging the distance that otherwise can exist in large agencies between headquarters and field office employees,” Gonzales wrote.

He recommended that other agencies carefully consider this strategy for their FOIA divisions.

Gonzales also recommended that in the coming months, agency officials collaborate in mapping out approaches that use technology to cost-effectively expedite FOIA requests and reduce backlogs.

Agencies reported in their plans that they want to deploy or upgrade an automated system for scanning, redacting and processing FOIA records that works faster and wastes less paper.

Likewise, agencies widely recognized the importance of refining and maintaining Web sites for FOIA administrative purposes, according to the report.

Decentralized agencies, such as the departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development, are using IT to keep better track of the status of requests, Gonzales wrote.

Lawmakers recently acted on legislation that would strengthen FOIA beyond the requirements of the executive order. On Sept. 27, the House Government Reform Committee’s Government Management, Finance and Accountability Subcommittee passed the OPEN Government Act, which would mandate that each agency have a phone or Internet service to update FOIA requestors on the status of their requests.

In responding to the attorney general's report, subcommittee Chairman Todd Platts (R-Pa.) said he will not introduce any IT-specific legislation because each agency's IT needs vary.

"We feel that legislation would be too prescriptive and therefore that [IT] should be addressed at the agency level," subcommittee staff member Tabetha Mueller said.

For example, she added, a system that works for an agency with a centralized structure might not work for a more decentralized department.

"Mr. Platts would want to allow agencies to meet the goals in the OPEN Government Act -- establishment of a tracking system -- in the most appropriate way for their situation," Mueller said. "Agencies need flexibility to design the IT solution that best meets their needs."

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