DOJ taps 18F for FOIA portal

The innovation shop 18F is tasked with creating a one-stop portal to handle Freedom of Information Act requests for all 119 agencies covered by the transparency law.

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The Office of Information Policy at the Justice Department has teamed up with 18F to create a one-stop portal to handle Freedom of Information Act requests for all 119 agencies covered by the transparency law.

The portal is required under the 2016 FOIA Improvement Act, and will be interoperable with agencies' current systems and allow the public to request documents from any agency covered by FOIA on a single website.

"The baseline for the portal is to have a single place where a member of the public can make a request to any agency," Melanie Pustay, the director of Justice's Office of Information Policy, told FCW. "And right now, there's not one spot where you can easily go and make a request to any of those 119" agencies.

Pustay said that her office, in coordination with the Office of Management and Budget, has secured $1.3 million to stand up the site.

"Our initial funding is to help us with the development," she said. "We're definitely going to need more funding for maintenance and operation… so we still have additional steps to take to figure out the best sources of funding going forward."

Pustay said that she envisions the portal improving the FOIA process in ways beyond simply hosting a menu of different agencies and handling requests.

"Making a request is really one of the easier parts of FOIA," she said. "Having features that could help requesters identify where to go could be really helpful to the FOIA process."

Pustay said she hopes "the portal can do things like guide a requester to the correct agency." Given that there are overlaps in agency missions and each agency's request system is different. "it can hard for requesters to know where do I go."

She also said that the site "ideally" will make it easier for users to locate and access information that has already been released by agencies, adding that putting documents "up on the website is one step, but then making sure that they're really easily locatable by the public is what will be the most useful."

Because the FOIA process can be frustrating for both requesters and agencies, Pustay said that, in addition to being in "daily contact" with 18F, her office will consult with requesters and agencies directly to incorporate their feedback throughout the iterative process.

She said that even if agencies' reliance on different systems poses a challenge to achieving interoperability, "we don't want any agency to lose efficiency," and added the site "will all be built in the open… to make this a reality."

The Justice website asks agencies and requesters interested in participating in the site's build-out to notify its Office of Information Policy by April 28.

Pustay said the "ballpark" timeline is to have an operational version of the portal "up and running this calendar year," according to the schedule set out in the 2016 law.

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