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3/15/2012
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Agencies Earn C- For FOIA Management

Federal agencies struggle with transparency into their Freedom of Information Act responses, finds Congressional watchdog report.

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Federal agencies continue to struggle with a government-wide effort to increase transparency in response to and management of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, according to a government watchdog report.

Last year, as part of an effort to increase FOIA transparency, the U.S. House of Representatives' Oversight and Government Reform Committee asked 100 agencies to submit FOIA-request tracking information.

The committee asked agencies to provide an electronic copy of their FOIA logs containing several key pieces of information, including: the name of the requester, the date of the request, a brief description of the documents or records sought, and the date the request was closed, among others.

After reviewing information sent by the agencies, the committee found that 62 of 100 agencies included all of the necessary information in their FOIA logs, according to a recent Oversight report of its findings from the review.

[ Facilitating safe data sharing across government and private organizations is the goal as Feds Set Classified Info Sharing Standards. ]

The committee rated agencies on an A to F scale, and gave federal agencies a C- score overall for their efforts to improve FOIA transparency.

Agencies received an A grade if they included all the necessary FOIA information components in their logs, and an A+ grade if they included even more. Logs missing only one necessary piece of information received a B grade, while logs that were missing two or three necessary components received a C or D grade, respectively.

Agencies received an F if they did not submit any logs to the Oversight committee or failed to produce them in digital format.

Individual agencies have made efforts to create more transparency and accountability around FOIA under the Obama administration's open-government strategy, and if the report is any indication, some have fared better than others.

The Department of Treasury developed a cloud computing-based FOIA management solution last year that allowed people to make requests of the department online, helped the department internally track requests and information, and provided a collaborative document-management system for personnel to handle the documents they need to respond to FOIA requests.

The system seems to be working, as the department received an A- from the Oversight committee for its log information. The only information Treasury failed to submit was a list of organizations for non-private citizen requesters.

The Department of Justice (DOJ)--scored far worse, despite being responsible for FOIA request oversight. Moreover, as part of its open government plan, the DOJ launched the FOIA.gov website a year ago to graphically display FOIA statistics for all government agencies as an accountability measure.

The DOJ, in a blog post earlier this week, promoted the site's one-year anniversary, as well as new features, such as the ability to search for information across agency sites via an aggregate "find" feature that could even preclude the need for a FOIA request, according to the agency's post.

Still, the DOJ received a D grade from the committee for only providing logs for three of its 40 component organizations, among other information holes in its submission.

Four cabinet-level agencies--the Departments of Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, and Interior, and the Office of Management and Budget--received F grades for either not submitting logs at all or only submitting information in PDF form.

On the other end of the scale, the Departments of Education, Energy, Labor, and Transportation all received A grades for submitting complete FOIA logs to the Oversight committee, while the Environmental Protection Agency received an A- for omitting some of the requested information.

Under the Obama administration, the feds also began submitting reports from each agency's chief FOIA officer to the DOJ to report on their efforts to improve management and response to FOIA requests.

In a blog post on Thursday, the DOJ highlighted some of these efforts by three departments--Agriculture, Treasury, and Health and Human Services (HHS)--to improve FOIA transparency through technology and other means.

Agriculture, for example, created an online mapping tool that provides county-level statistical data on the people, jobs, agriculture, and characteristics of counties across the United States, while HHS' Administration for Children and Families installed a live chat feature on its website to provide customer assistance.

However, while Treasury and HHS both scored high on Oversight's review, Agriculture received a D score for failing to submit the bulk of the requested FOIA electronic log information.

As federal agencies embrace devices and apps to meet employee demand, the White House seeks one comprehensive mobile strategy. Also in the new Going Mobile issue of InformationWeek Government: Find out how the National Security Agency is developing technologies to make commercial devices suitable for intelligence work. (Free registration required.)

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