A new FOIA search tool is under development, while forthcoming shared business standards aim to streamline case management systems.
The Department of Justice is creating a wizard to help Americans making requests under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
The project is meant to help people locate any information that is already public, and in the case that a FOIA request is still needed, help them make better requests, said Bobak Talebian, director of the DOJ’s Office of Information Policy, during the Chief FOIA Officers Council meeting on Nov. 3.
“The overall goal here will be that it will provide a much more cohesive, user-friendly experience to the public on the front end of FOIA.gov by helping them find information that's already out there,” said Talebian, who added that the hope is for less misdirected requests sent to the wrong agency and more targeted requests.
A DOJ press officer told FCW that the “decentralized nature of [the] FOIA request process across more than 100 federal agencies” means that many agencies might seem relevant to someone looking to make a request. The goal is for the new tool to help.
The interactive wizard, or guided user experience, is going to use logic-based and machine learning tools, said Talebian. Currently the project is in the discovery phase.
FOIA officers can also look for forthcoming shared services business standards for federal public information offices.
Lindsay Steel, chief of compliance staff at the DOJ’s Office of Information Policy, said that her office is working with the General Services Administration's Office of Shared Services and Performance Improvement to develop shared business standards to help streamline technology operations – something she says has been of interest to the FOIA community for years.
“A lot of agencies have common needs for FOIA technology and there are opportunities for shared services,” she said. “It often comes up, ‘Why aren't there more shared services for FOIA? Or is there a common standard that we can use?’”
Steel said that standards for agency case management systems are up first. They’re working with the National Archives’ Office of Government Information Services and GSA’s Business Standards Council, which has previously worked on standards for cross-governmental issues like grants management.
“We really see this opportunity to develop standards that could help ensure agencies compliance with FOIAs procedural requirements and processing requests,” she said. “It would also facilitate easier compliance with reporting obligations, along with improved data quality. It can also help agencies keep up with increasing requests and reducing backlogs overall, facilitating better customer service for the public.”
For agencies, the standards could help with procurement and acquisition by providing the basis for market research or defining key requirements for technology, Steel added.
Also on the horizon is the sunset of the FOIAonline.gov portal, which around a dozen agencies use to take requests and appeals from the public and allow them to search for other records. The website, run by the Environmental Protection Agency, is sunsetting at the end of 2023.
There is still a national FOIA portal, FOIA.gov, which is meant to serve as a central FOIA website, as mandated by the 2016 FOIA Improvement Act.
These new developments come as FOIA agencies continue to deal with long-term changes and challenges in FOIA administration, like adjusting to telework and hybrid work and dealing with the increasing numbers of complex FOIA requests and litigation.
There’s also a swelling backlog of requests that stood at 141,762 in 2020, according to a 2022 report from the Government Accountability Office.
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