recommended reading

Key Senators Back a Stronger, More Digital FOIA

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., left, accompanied by the committee's ranking Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., left, accompanied by the committee's ranking Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. // Susan Walsh/AP

The ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee expressed interest on Tuesday in a House-passed bill to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, including by mandating a single online portal for all government FOIA requests.

Judiciary committee staff members are reviewing the bill that the House passed unanimously in February, said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

Grassley and Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., both expressed optimism the committee would take up transparency legislation during a hearing focused on “Reinvigorating FOIA for the Digital Age.”

The FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act would also require that the Office of Government Information Services, which was established in 2007 as something of a FOIA ombudsman, report directly to Congress rather than passing its reports and recommendations through the White House’s Office of Management and Budget first.

OGIS’ first slate of recommendations to improve governmentwide FOIA performance were stalled at OMB for more than a year before being released in April 2012 amid pressure from Leahy and Grassley.

Leahy asked OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet to weigh in on the House legislation, which was sponsored by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md. She declined to comment because the Obama administration hasn’t stated an official position on the bill.

Nisbet praised FOIA Online, a pilot tool to receive and manage FOIA requests across a handful of agencies, including OGIS’s parent agency the National Archives and Records Administration.

“Whether in a small agency or a large one, the system seems to be working quite well,” she said. “We’ve got good feedback from requesters and we think this is a good model for looking at expanding it, which we hope happens, or to [inform the] next version that comes along.”

Grassley asked Nisbet whether the Treasury Department, which used FOIA Online for about one year before withdrawing, had exited because of problems with the system. Nisbet said Treasury was already developing an internal FOIA Web tool when it joined FOIA Online and had used the joint system on a temporary basis while that system was being built.

Much of the remainder of Tuesday’s hearing focused on agency’s FOIA performance, with several senators citing a Center for Effective Government scorecard that gave failing grades to seven of 15 agencies that handle roughly 95 percent of all FOIA requests.

Among other factors for the low scores, the center cited a rising number of exemptions agencies cited for returning redacted or incomplete documents.

Melanie Pustay, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy, said the rising exemption figure could be misleading because agencies were processing a larger volume of requests and more complex requests. That analysis was disputed by several FOIA advocates who argued exemptions are interpreted too broadly and pressed for a broader role for OGIS.

Pustay cited better technological processing as the best way to decrease FOIA backlogs and to reduce wait times for requesters.

“I am very hopeful that the more advanced, sophisticated technology tools that can actually help agencies search for records and duplicate records and sort records, all the things that many times are done manually, they can be automated to increase timeliness,” she said. “That, in turn, will allow agencies to get back to requesters in a faster way.”

This story has been updated to clarify the state of potential FOIA legislation in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Threatwatch Alert

Network intrusion

Florida’s Concealed Carry Permit Holders Names Exposed

See threatwatch report

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Close [ x ] More from Nextgov
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from Nextgov.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Modernizing IT for Mission Success

    Surveying Federal and Defense Leaders on Priorities and Challenges at the Tactical Edge

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • Effective Ransomware Response

    This whitepaper provides an overview and understanding of ransomware and how to successfully combat it.

    Download
  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.