Today I finally received our long-awaited response from the Department of Commerce. Unfortunately, though, the records came directly to us through the US mail — not through FOIAonline. And, according to our FOIAonline account, the request is still “On Assignment.”
It is notable that of the three requests we made to agencies using FOIAonline where we have received responses, the system has not worked as expected once — MSPB mailed us the report and then made the records available online a few weeks later and the EPA…well, the EPA emailed us the responsive records a couple of times before finally making the record available online. We have also had a hard time finding any of the documents that have been released to us using FOIAonline’s search function. Clearly, agencies need to invest more into training employees on how to use the system.
When the FOIAonline system works, there are clear benefits for requesters. A few weeks ago we used the system to make a new request to NARA — since our information was already stored in our account, all we had to do was describe the records we were requesting and click a few buttons. We were immediately given a tracking number for the request and a few weeks later we got an email letting us know that the records were available through our account. We logged on and downloaded the records without a problem. We also did a quick search to see if the records would be easy for anyone else interested in a similar topic to find: they were (if you have any interest in knowing what NARA’s human resources office did to implement the new FOIA job series, 0306, the records are awaiting you).
Speaking of making records available, we scanned in a copy of Commerce’s response and report. Hopefully, Commerce updates our account with better copies soon.
This morning we logged into our FOIAOnline account to check on the status of our outstanding FOIA requests at the Department of Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Unfortunately, despite the fact we are about two weeks past the expected delivery date, there have been no updates on either request.
We did notice something new about our completed request at the Merit Service Protection Board (MSPB), however. As you may remember, we were concerned that MSPB had mailed us the final report, meaning the electronic version would probably not be made publicly available through FOIAOnline. When we logged into the account today, an electronic version of the MSPB’s response and the requested report were available for download.
Be sure to check out our next post to see what happens when we try to use FOIAOnline’s search system to fund the released record…
One of the great new tools included on FOIAOnline is a reports generator that allows users to slice and dice FOIA processing data from participating agencies by different time frames. Users can run reports on data beginning on October 1 (before the October 9 launch of FOIAOnline) to the current date. We decided to use the data to see if there is any evidence yet that FOIAOnline is either a) making it easier for the public to make requests, or b) participating agencies seem to be processing requests any faster since joining the system.
We did this by running reports for the one week period before the launch of FOIAOnline (October 1 – 7) and each of the three following one week periods through October 28 (October 8 – 14, October 15 – 21, and October 22 – 28). We used the number of requests received as an indicator of the relative easiness of making requests (on the theory that more people will make requests if it is easier to do so). The number of requests processed per week was used to gauge if the agency is processing requests any more efficiently.
Below we take a look at statistics for the Department of Commerce, and the Environmental Protection Agency:
The number of requests received dipped the first week Commerce began using the FOIAOnline system, but there is not a clear trend towards the public sending more or less FOIA requests to Commerce. Commerce seems to be processing requests more efficiently since the launch of the website.
At EPA, both the number of requests received since the launch of FOIAOnline, and the number of requests processed per week have dropped. As more data becomes available, we will be able to judge is this is a troubling trend.
On 10/15/12 we logged into FOIAonline to check the status of our requests at the EPA, the Merit Service Protection Board, and Commerce. EPA and the MSPB have classified our request as “simple” and MSPB expects we will have a response to our request by 11/2/12. Here is what we saw:
We filed our request with the Department of Commerce using FOIAonline on 10/4/2012. The system automatically gave us a tracking number – DOC-OS-2013-000025