Survey: Agencies fail to meet E-FOIA mandate

National Security Archive survey

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Congress enacted the Electronic Freedom of Information Act in 1997 to set agencies ahead of the technology curve and expand public access to government records, but 10 years later, most agencies do not comply with the law, according to a recent survey by the National Security Archive.

The archive, an independent nongovernmental research institute and library located at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., polled 149 agencies and found that only one in five fully complied with the law by providing access to all four categories of records.

The law mandates that agencies let the public obtain opinions and orders, statements of agency policy not published in the Federal Register, staff manuals, and records released to at least one person and that are determined to be requested by others.

Although E-FOIA, congressional legislation and the Justice Department require agencies to provide guidance for FOIA requesters, only one in 16 agencies met this requirement, the survey found. The guidance includes information about where to send a FOIA request, fees, processing, exemptions, administrative appeal rights and other filing information.

The survey, which was conducted with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, found that one in three agency sites included required indexes and guidelines for agency records.

“Some government sites just link to each other in an endless, empty loop,” said Thomas Blanton, the archive's director.

Agencies also have not used the Web to make filing easier, researchers found. Only 25 percent of the agencies have an online FOIA form.

Many agency FOIA Web sites are hard to use and difficult to navigate, according to the survey.

The archive classified five departments as the best overall agencies:
  • The Education Department.
  • The Justice Department.
  • The Federal Trade Commission.
  • NASA.
  • The National Labor Relations Board.
Among the 12 worst overall agencies were:
  • The Air Force.
  • The Defense Department.
  • The Interior Department.
  • The Labor Department.
  • The Federal Labor Relations Authority.
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
  • The Director of National Intelligence Office.
  • The National Drug Control Policy Office.
  • The Small Business Administration.
  • The Transportation Security Administration.
  • The U.S. Trade Representative.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Public access on the Web to government information is the only long-term solution to the backlogs and delays that undermine the FOIA today," said Meredith Fuchs, the archive's general counsel. "This audit, plus congressional oversight, should provide a wake-up call to the agencies."

Jana Cranmer writes for Government Computer News, an 1105 Government Information Group publication.

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