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Requesting public documents is about to get easier

mmaxer/shutterstock.com

In early 2009, around the same time the Obama administration was pushing federal agencies to be more responsive to Freedom of Information Act requests, a handful of people at the Environmental Protection Agency had an idea.

In 2002, EPA had been the lead agency developing Regulations.gov, an online portal for citizens to comment on proposed rules. It dawned on the agency’s FOIA and rule-making leaders that the Regulations.gov process basically could be reverse engineered into an online FOIA portal. Instead of posting proposed rules and taking in comments, agencies would take in FOIA requests and spit out responsive documents, the thinking went.

The resulting system, due in September, will be used by at least EPA, the Commerce Department and the National Archives, said John Moses, director of EPA’s collection strategies division, who helped design the system. Some other agencies might sign on, Moses said, but participation is completely voluntary.

“For [just] EPA our estimate right now is we believe we can have a cost avoided or saved of about $3.5 million over five years,” Moses said. “That’s reducing costs, but it’s also efficiency gained by someone who doesn’t have to calculate the same invoice 5,000 times.”

Some third-party analyses have shown the FOIA module could save more than $200 million over the same time period if adopted governmentwide, he said. Constructing the system will cost about $1.3 million, Andrew Battin, director of EPA’s Office of Information Collection, testified in March.

The module will provide an online record of FOIA requests to the participating agencies and, in the majority of cases, agencies will post any responsive documents as well, Moses said, so multiple people aren’t going after the same documents.

The possible exception for posting documents online would be older, lengthy documents that are stored on paper and are deemed unlikely to be requested again. In that case, it might be more cost-effective to simply mail paper copies of the documents, Moses said.

He said he expects EPA’s online FOIA library to grow significantly after the module’s launch, but the goal is to supplement the public information troves the agency posts to its own website and Data.gov with information that’s not currently online, rather than compete with or replace those systems.

In addition, the module will allow FOIA officers to forward a request to another participating agency that’s more likely to have responsive documents, he said, a process that is carried out now largely through emails and phone calls.

The module will keep a public record of how each request travels through an agency and if it is forwarded to another participating agency or outside the system, he said.

After the initial launch, designers may add a directory that will help citizens determine the best target for their request based on the paths of previous FOIAs.

“Maybe we’ll have a topic list or category list built into the system logic that says, ‘If you have a request about endangered species, 95 percent of the time that will go to the Fish and Wildlife Service,’ ” he said. “But there will be flags saying, ‘If that’s not right, look at these three other agencies.’ If the request has to do with pesticides’ impact on endangered species, for instance, than that will reroute it back to EPA.”

The FOIA module was briefly controversial in March when transparency and advocacy groups charged the Justice Department was discouraging agencies from signing on with EPA because the agency thought the module threatened its own site FOIA.gov.

FOIA.gov is focused primarily on providing statistics about agency FOIA response rates, average wait times and other issues. A Justice spokeswoman told Federal Computer Week in March that Justice had not discouraged other agencies from signing up for the EPA effort.

<em>This story was updated to clarify the nature of FOIA work at the Justice Department.</em>

(Image via mmaxer/Shutterstock.com)

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