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    US: most agencies falling short on mandate for online records

    Bronnen door Eric Hennekam


    Bericht van het National Security Archive:

    Nearly 20 years after Congress passed the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments (E-FOIA), only 40 percent of agencies have followed the law’s instruction for systematic posting of records released through FOIA in their electronic reading rooms, according to a new FOIA Audit released today by the National Security Archive at www.nsarchive.org to mark Sunshine Week.

    The Archive team audited all federal agencies with Chief FOIA Officers as well as agency components that handle more than 500 FOIA requests a year — 165 federal offices in all — and found only 67 with online libraries populated with significant numbers of released FOIA documents and regularly updated.

    Why did the National Security Archive choose to audit e-reading rooms?

    Since the law passed in 1966, FOIA has required agencies to make “available for public inspection and copying” certain defined categories of records. For the first thirty years, agencies satisfied this portion of the FOIA with “conventional reading rooms,” physical locations where members of the public could review paper or microform copies of the records.

    In 1996 Congress sought to revolutionize the public’s access to information and the Freedom of Information Act process by directing agencies to use the Internet to make more information — including documents released by FOIA — available.  Congress saw huge returns on the horizon: more public access to important government information and less time and money spent at agencies to process FOIA requests.

    Congress has since been proven right. Proactive release of records, such as those the National Aeronautics and Space Administration released about the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, and those the Department of the Interior released about the Deep Water Horizon oil spill, has enriched the public debate, and saved those agencies huge amounts of processing time for FOIA requests that instead were satisfied by just looking online.

    This Audit has found seventeen E-Star agencies that have embraced Congress’s vision and are thriving. But we also found many who continue to bury their documents in an analog hole. Thirty agencies have adopted just the bare minimum of Congress’s instruction to become digital; thirty-three agencies have not even done that.

    The FOIA system is a zero-sum game, unfortunately. In the sequester era, with finite and ever-more-limited government resources, any new request from the public competes for time and effort with every previous request. The only way out of this resource trap is for agencies to put online as many records as possible, those previously released, those likely to be asked for in the future, those of any public interest. This way, the FOIA process could ultimately be limited just to those records where a genuine dispute exists about whether they should be public.

    The National Security Archive conducted its E-FOIA audit to help drive this policy debate forward, to highlight best and worst practices government-wide, and to prod agencies to fulfill the law, for their own benefit as well as for the public good.

    Congress called on agencies to embrace disclosure and the digital era nearly two decades ago, with the passage of the 1996 “E-FOIA” amendments. The law mandated that agencies post key sets of records online, provide citizens with detailed guidance on making FOIA requests, and use new information technology to post online proactively records of significant public interest, including those already processed in response to FOIA requests and “likely to become the subject of subsequent requests.”

    Congress believed then, and openness advocates know now, that this kind of proactive disclosure, publishing online the results of FOIA requests as well as agency records that might be requested in the future, is the only tenable solution to FOIA backlogs and delays. Thus the National Security Archive chose to focus on the e-reading rooms of agencies in its latest audit.

    Even though the majority of federal agencies have not yet embraced proactive disclosure of their FOIA releases, the Archive E-FOIA Audit did find that some real “E-Stars” exist within the federal government, serving as examples to lagging agencies that technology can be harnessed to create state-of-the art FOIA platforms. Unfortunately, our audit also found “E-Delinquents” whose abysmal web performance recalls the teletype era.

    E-Stars include the Departments of Energy and State, the FBI, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the agencies that have embraced the government’s opt-in FOIA portal, FOIAonline, which posts digital copies of FOIA releases. E-Stars such as the Department of State have shown that even agencies wracked by FOIA delays and deplorable record keeping can have a positive FOIA impact by posting their releases proactively. The excellent search functionality of the Department of State’s agency-leading E-Reading Room will make State’s website a pleasurable platform to browse, search, and read portions of former Secretary Clinton’s emails — when they are released.

    E-Delinquents include the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House, which, despite being mandated to advise the President on technology policy, does not embrace 21st century practices by posting any frequently requested records online. Another E-Delinquent, the Drug Enforcement Administration, insults its website’s viewers by claiming that it “does not maintain records appropriate for FOIA Library at this time.”

    “The presumption of openness requires the presumption of posting,” said Archive director Tom Blanton. “For the new generation, if it’s not online, it does not exist.”


    Check out today’s posting at the National Security Archive – http://www.nsarchive.org/NSAEBB/NSAEBB505/ 


    [13 maart 2015]