Open Government

The future of FOIA

Shutterstock image: digital records.

Technology has helped the government become more efficient and transparent in many areas. That hasn’t been the case, however, for a law written to increase transparency. Now a group of agency and private-sector officials are working with agencies to develop recommendations to improve the situation.

The Freedom of Information Act Advisory Committee, created in 2014, seeks to streamline the process for requesting documents under FOIA and bridge the gap between requesters and government agencies -- many of which have unique requirements for FOIA requests.

The committee convened on July 20 to review the progress made in the previous quarter.

To facilitate the submission of FOIA requests, the committee has created three subcommittees. Each is co-led by a government member and a non-government member, and each focuses on tackling a specific frustration with the FOIA process.

The Proactive Disclosure Subcommittee seeks to handle agencies’ universal releases (such as Cabinet secretaries’ daily schedules) and develop a universal format for disclosing FOIA logs. The Searches Subcommittee is looking for ways to make it easier to find documents and improve communication between requesters and agencies. And the Efficiency and Resources Subcommittee is working on identifying high-performing agencies’ practices and sharing them across government.

The Efficiency and Resources Subcommittee is still in the information-gathering process, but the other two are already developing recommendations in consultation with agencies and transparency experts.

All three subcommittees are expected to submit their draft recommendations by Oct. 19 and finalize them by Dec. 15 so that the committee’s members can vote on them in January 2018 and produce a final report for agencies in April 2018.

Alina Semo, the committee’s chairwoman and director of the National Archives and Records Administration’s Office of Government Information Services, said agencies have reached out and been receptive to working with the committee to improve the FOIA process.

That process has long been criticized as frustrating and even broken. Furthermore, concerns about the Trump administration’s lack of transparency and the recent uptick in FOIA requests are straining agencies’ resources for handling such requests.

By the end of the year, the General Services Administration’s 18F and the Justice Department's Office of Information Policy plan to launch an operational version of a national FOIA portal that would handle requests for all 119 agencies covered by the transparency law. Melanie Pustay, director of the Office of Information Policy, told FCW that GSA’s recent reorganization has not disrupted work on the portal.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.

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