Tangled Up in FOIA Requests, Agencies Turn to Technology


Think user experience to simplify back-end processes.

Complying with the 1966 Freedom of Information Act these days is a hugely complex technological feat that goes far beyond filing cabinets, good judgment and black markers.

One trick to organizing and handling mind-boggling numbers of documents is keeping in mind the requesters' needs, according to experts looking to make this government service more effective.

Last year, federal agencies received a total of 704,394 FOIA requests, with more than 230,000 going to the Department of Homeland Security alone.

The Transportation Department took in 10,552 requests in 2013, with most -- 6,650 -- going to the Federal Aviation Administration and its 18 full-time FOIA employees, according to a request for information about FOIA systems on the market.

To process its requests, Transportation relied on 11 separate FOIA operations running simultaneously. Six used a FOIA-tracking software system developed within the department, one used a separate in-house system, two used store-bought systems, one used a jerry-rigged correspondence system and one just uses Excel spreadsheets, according to solicitation documents posted earlier this year.

That tangle inspired the department to ask industry for a software solution to track, process, manage and maintain FOIA requests for one or maybe even all 11 of its components.

Back-office inefficiencies -- hardly unique to Transportation -- can create larger frustrations for people trying to request previously undisclosed government information, to which they are entitled under the nearly 50-year-old law.

Raphael Majma has been working on the problem from the other side with a team at 18F -- the General Services Administration division that aims to make federal digital services more user friendly.

“Technology definitely can change FOIA, and that’s at the heart of what we’re exploring,” he told Nextgov in an email.

Majma said 18F is trying to help agencies make the FOIA experience more intuitive for the requester, which should result in clearer and better-targeted queries.  

“We can help agencies without a FOIA request form create one that sends a more perfected request in a structured and electronic format, and we can help those with existing processes make better sense of the requests they get,” he said.  

Majma added: “One of the things users and stakeholders have described to us is how the federal hierarchy isn’t always accessible. This means not only discovering the right agency you should be making a FOIA request to, but also in understanding the information they actually have.”

18F is working on a list of all FOIA agency contacts that users can easily navigate to find information they need.  

“We can help citizens figure out whether the information they are looking for is already available somewhere,” he said. “We can change how the FOIA process looks and feels to the user by designing from a place that tries to make sense of things for them, rather than what makes sense to folks like us who are more familiar with how the federal government is organized.”

Counterintuitively, maybe, designing for the user might be agencies’ biggest hope for simplifying its behind-the-scenes procedures.

The Transportation Department, for its part, has decided to leave its back-office procedures be for now.

(Image via jdwfoto/Shutterstock.com)