Posting information online could preempt FOIA requests

Technology can help agencies tackle new queries and backlogs, federal officials tell lawmakers.

Taking advantage of technology and preemptively posting frequently requested information online could help agencies address new Freedom of Information Act queries and tackle backlogs, FOIA officials told lawmakers on Thursday.

Larry Gottesman, national FOIA officer for the Environmental Protection Agency, said emerging technologies present significant opportunities for agencies trying to eliminate FOIA pileups. EPA has reduced its pending requests by about 96 percent, in part by creating databases of popular information. The agency's online reading rooms reduce the need to file a request in the first place, according to Gottesman.

Miriam Nisbet, director of the National Archives and Records Administration's Office of Government Information Services, also encouraged agencies to facilitate communication between citizens searching for documents and FOIA officials. "Simple communication between the requester and a FOIA professional can go a long way in preventing disputes," she said.

EPA's progress has yet to be replicated governmentwide. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., credited the Obama administration for its commitment to transparency, but said that dedication has not translated into concrete improvements. McHenry cited a National Security Archive report indicating that many agencies have not taken steps to implement reforms set out in 2009 FOIA memos from President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.

"The administration's guidance has not been communicated effectively or enforced," McHenry said. "A year into the administration, the American people should be seeing more transparency than this, especially from the agencies that are the most spendthrift with tax dollars."

Witnesses who frequently file FOIA requests told the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Archives they have not seen significant, if any, improvement in handling of their queries under Obama.

Tom Fitton, president of the nonprofit Judicial Watch, said he believes the Obama administration is less transparent than the George W. Bush administration. "The Bush administration was tough and tricky, but the Obama administration is tougher and trickier," Fitton said. "We give them an 'F' on transparency."

Melanie Ann Pustay, director of the Justice Department's Office of Information and Privacy, said her unit, which is the lead agency responsible for implementation of FOIA, has been working hard to encourage compliance with the administration's memos. In addition to circulating initial guidance on new policies, the office conducted a governmentwide training conference to inform FOIA officials of the changes and has advised agencies of concrete steps they can take to ensure a presumption of openness.

"We regularly provide training to agency personnel on all aspects of FOIA, and all of that training includes sessions on new FOIA guidelines," Pustay said.