Government only as transparent as its technology, advocates say

A FOIA advisory committee is recommending that government update fee guidelines and permit agencies to release documents via email.

Shutterstock image (Dencg) : digital government concept.

The National Archives and Records Administration's Freedom of Information Act Advisory Committee met in Washington on April 19, and called for several reforms to ensure the FOIA process better serves the public interest.

Committee members voted to ask the Office of Management and Budget to update its fee guidelines for FOIA requests, last changed in 1986. They also passed several motions aimed at bringing FOIA processes into the 21st century, including allowing agencies to release requested documents via email and recognizing online media as media sources.

The committee also hosted Margaret Kwoka, an assistant professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, who shared her research on the commercial use of FOIA at six federal agencies. In a paper titled  "FOIA, Inc.," Kwoka argued that corporations have overrun FOIA processes at some agencies, clogging the system and "crowding out" journalists and other government watchdogs. Her report urges agencies to affirmatively disclose records that are routinely requested through FOIA.

Kwoka's research seemed to resonate with the committee, which was established in 2013 as part of the United States' second Open Government National Action Plan.  "It really changed my mindset," committee chair James Holzer said of the study.

Committee member Clay Johnson, a former Presidential Innovation Fellow and founder of the Department of Better Technology, also applauded Kwoka's critiques, and said dated technology is at least partly to blame for FOIA's shortcomings.

"I came to the conclusion that government can only be as transparent as its technology vendors will allow for it to be," he said.

"I think you are absolutely right that technology constraints are playing a big role," Kwoka said. "I actually was trying to get data from FOIA online and had to hire someone to write code to scrape the website. That's just a tiny example of the kind of technology barriers. Everything's up there, but it's still not reasonably accessible."

Open FOIA, the 18F-developed online portal for filing FOIA requests, is still in the development stages.  And other attempts to create multi-agency FOIA sites have suffered from turf battles and spotty collaboration.

Kwoka, however, told FCW that initiatives like Open FOIA can help to the extent that they make the request process easier for the average person to understand.

"Insiders have a true advantage," she told FCW, "and companies have that insider advantage."

Nate Jones, a member of the committee and the FOIA coordinator for George Washington University's National Security Archive, said one of the priorities should be making more documents available online.

"The only way we're going to get out of our resource dilemma is to stop making it so that people cannot get information on the Internet," said Jones. Request backlogs, unreported FOIA abuses, and unclear fee waiver requirements also keep government information unnecessarily restricted, he added.

According a recent report from the Archives' Office of Government Information Services, the agency's FOIA Ombudsman received nearly 1,200 requests for assistance in fiscal 2015, a 25 percent increase from the previous year. Thirty-nine percent of the inquiries had to do with general/process requests, 37 percent were about denied requests and 21 percent of requests had to do with delayed requests. The report also found that while agencies are investing in technology to help track and process FOIA requests, agency personnel often cannot or do not take full advantage of the technology.

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