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Feds Launch New Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Portal

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, October 1 2012

A group of federal agencies on Monday unveiled a new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request portal that they hope will greatly improve the processing of FOIA requests.

Located at FOIAonline, the new portal is a pilot project jointly developed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Commerce Department, and the National Archives and Records Administration. In addition to the Commerce, EPA, and NARA, two other federal agencies, the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Federal Labor Relations Authority, have signed up to use the system to process FOIA requests.

The developers of the system are hoping that more federal agencies will start using the system once they see its benefits in action.

Open government advocates have pushed for the development and adoption of the portal, saying that it will be a much more efficient way of processing FOIA requests. Its developers have pitched the new system as an easier and more efficient way for the public to access government records. From the agency side, they've pitched it as a much-needed upgrade to existing systems, which for many agencies is manual labor and individual spreadsheets that are used to keep track of requests.

The new system is an attempt to centralize those efforts so that agencies can co-ordinate their information production efforts with one another and not duplicate each others' work. The public can also use the system to better keep track of how their requests are coming along, and how long it's taking for government officials to respond to their requests. The system will also enable government agencies to publish the records requested so that they don't have to, again, duplicate their work.

"Agencies have the option on FOIAonline of masking the description of requests if they are particularly sensitive, and of not putting all publicly released records in a document repository, though the hope is that agencies will take full advantage of all FOIAonline has to offer," said Tim Crawford in an e-mail. Crawford is the EPA's senior policy adviser on open government.

OMB Watch, which is one of the open government groups that have advocated for the implementation of such a system across the federal government, praised the effort on Monday.

"FOIAonline represents a major advance in bringing the federal freedom of information system into the 21st century," said Katherine McFate, President and CEO of OMB Watch in a press statement. "OMB Watch has been advocating for such tools for years, and we're pleased the government has put this centralized website in place."

She added: "We strongly encourage other agencies throughout the government to participate and use the portal."

OMB Watch has more details on the portal here, and the Commerce Department's Deputy Director of Open Government Joey Hutcherson has more details, including a bullet point list of features of the new system, here.

This post has been updated with a comment from Crawford.

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