DOJ launches one-stop shop for FOIA requests

The Department of Justice launched a one-stop shop for users to submit online Freedom of Information Act requests across government.

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The Department of Justice launched its one-stop shop for users to submit online Freedom of Information Act requests across government.

The FOIA process has long been criticized as frustrating and even broken, and the number of FOIA requests spiked during fiscal year 2016 before reaching an all-time high in fiscal year 2017.

To address some of these criticisms and an increasing workload, on March 8 DOJ debuted its new national portal that allows users to submit FOIA requests to any of the 116 agencies covered by the transparency law on a single, cloud-based site.

In all, standing up the site -- and covering operating and maintenance costs through fiscal year 2018 -- cost $1.8 million, said Melanie Pustay, the director of Justice's Office of Information Policy, at a demonstration of the new website for reporters.

The portal, which  was mandated under the 2016 FOIA Improvement Act,  is interoperable with agencies' current FOIA systems and was developed by a team comprising Justice's Office of Information Policy, its CIO office, 18F as well as technical contractors.

"It's a single place to make a FOIA request to all 116 agencies," Pustay said. "We wanted to make sure what we delivered met the needs of the users."

Beyond being a portal for making FOIA requests, Pustay said the goal of the site was to include features to make the often-frustrating FOIA process easier for both requesters and agencies.

Joseph Klimavicz, Justice's CIO, said the new site's features should improve transparency and functionality and modernize the business process by centralizing FOIA request submissions. 

The site includes tips on submitting FOIA requests, a search function to find already-public information as well as a time estimate for when to expect a response. Individual agency pages include descriptions about what information is or is not available from that agency's records.  

Each agency covered by FOIA has a designated official to manage the requests from the portal site.

To keep the site running, Pustay said, the top 17 agencies that receive the bulk of FOIA-related appropriations will fund future operations and maintenance costs.

Pustay said the new portal is just a first iteration that the development group hopes to build on. Specifically, she said future iterations could include more functionality for helping users identify the right agency to request records from, building in more intelligence related to how government is organized as well as other improvements suggested by users.

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