Many still can't take electronic FOIA

Almost half of all major federal departments can't accept Freedom of Information requests electronically.

"Update on Freedom of Information Act Implementation Status"

More agencies are moving to accept electronic requests under the Freedom of Information Act, even though such a capability is not a mandate. But almost half of the major departments still haven't implemented a solution, according to a General Accounting Office report released Monday.

In an annual review of 25 agencies' implementation of FOIA and the E-FOIA amendments of 1996, GAO officials found that since Sept. 11, 2001, three agencies added systems to accept information requests electronically: the U.S. Agency for International Development; the Defense Department; and the Environment Protection Agency.

Officials from all three agencies said the electronic capabilities save time and make it easier for citizens to request information. They added that the decision had nothing to do with the terrorism-related concerns and events, particularly the slowdown in Washington, D.C., mail delivery since the anthrax attacks in 2001. GAO officials investigated these possible causes on behalf of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Eleven other agencies already allowed electronic FOIA requests before Sept. 11, 2001, but as of July 2003, there were 11 more that did not provide that option, according to the report.

Overall, the number of FOIA requests received by the government increased to 2.3 million in 2002, up from less than 2 million in 2001. Sixty percent of those requests went to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Agencies also reported a decrease in the number of backlogged or pending requests, possibly reflecting effective training and guidance by the Justice Department, which oversees the implementation of FOIA. However, more agencies had data quality problems in 2002.

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