So, from the original three requests I made using FOIAonline, I now have one envelope with a paper copy of a report, one electronic version version of a report available online, and two emails with electronic versions of reports attached. My FOIAOnline account shows one closed request and two still “on assignment.” Confused yet? Me too.
As I wrote in early January, the EPA sent me copy of the requested records via email. The request was still “open” in my FOIAOnline account, however, and I asked the FOIA processor if the EPA would be making the files available for other users through the system. Well, I still haven’t gotten a response to my question, but today I did receive an email from a different FOIA processor with another version of the requested report attached.
FOIAonline is a very promising project. It could make it considerably easier for users to make and track FOIA requests without having deep and arcane knowledge about what components of the federal government are likely to have particular records. It could streamline the consult and referral processes– currently major sources of delay– and save the government an estimated $200 million over the next five years with government-wide adoption. By making all released records available online, requesters could have easy access to information without having to file a FOIA request, and the government could save money on processing documents multiple times.
FOIAonline’s developers and champions have been very open to public feedback about how to improve the service and have held multiple briefings to show the public how to use the system. They might need to do more to show their employees how to use it as well.
Yesterday afternoon I was surprised to get an email from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with a copy of the requested report attached. The surprising part was not the release of the report itself, it is that it seemed to occur completely separate from the FOIAOnline system.
Earlier in the afternoon, I’d logged in to my FOIAOnline account to see if there were any updates on my outstanding requests and nothing had changed from what I saw before the holidays: my two outstanding requests were months past their expected due dates and still listed as “On Assignment.” I searched for an option to correspond with the agencies for some sort of an update, but could not find an option to do so within the system or any other kind of phone number or email address I could use.
Since the report had appeared in my inbox, I decided to log back into my FOIAOnline account this morning to see if anything had changed. My request with the EPA was still listed as “On Assignment,” but there was a small icon next to the request indicating that I had unread correspondence. I clicked through and saw that this had been added to the record:
I now had the option to correspond with the agency, but the system was still not showing the records that had already been released. As you can see above, I am asking when the records will be available through the system.
We want the records to be available via FOIAOnline because, as we’ve written about before, one of the supposed benefits of the FOIAOnline system is that once an agency using FOIAOnline releases a record, it can easily make it available to the public. This is intended to help cut down on the number of duplicate requests because users are encouraged to search for previously released records before filing their request.
For the time being, I’ve made the released record available here. Hopefully the EPA will make it more broadly available soon.
EPA Report on Managing Government Records
As some of you may remember, in mid-December I called the DHS FOIA Customer Service Center to ask about my request because I had yet to receive a tracking number, or even an acknowledgement of my request. At that time I was told that there was no record of my request in the system, and was asked to please re-submit my request via email. Today I decided to check back in on my request with the Department of Homeland Security because I still had not gotten a tracking number, or any acknowledgement.
The good news? The FOIA Customer Service Center found my original request – according to their records, an acknowledgement letter had been sent out on October 16 – only a few days after I emailed my original request. It seems that letter must have been lost in the mail, however, since I have never seen it (and, by the way, I still don’t see any logic behind agencies answer FOIA requests submitted via email and explicitly requesting electronic copies of records in an electronic format with a paper letter sent via US mail). I even managed to get the tracking number assigned to the original request: 2013-HQFO-0091-JH.
The bad news? I still have no clue when I might actually receive a response to me request. I also have no idea why they could not find the record the first time I called the service center, or what happened to the second request. I’m also preparing myself to have to scan in any (hopefully) released documents before I can make them available for anyone else who might be interested in the text.
UPDATE: DHS finally emailed me a copy of the acknowledgement letter to my original request made on October 4 (still no word on the second request I submitted when DHS told me it had no record of my request in December…). I’m very glad to know DHS can email back requesters, but am all the more perplexed as to why they put the letter in the mail in the first place.
Annoyingly, the acknowledgement letter says that DHS will take additional time to process the request because my “request seeks numerous documents that will necessitate a thorough and wide-ranging search.” The request clearly seeks only a single document: we made such a significantly narrow request so that our project would not create an undue burden on FOIA offices.
We found similar language regarding “numerous documents” in the acknowledgement letter sent to us by DOD – when we called the FOIA processor to make sure there was not a misunderstanding about what we are seeking, he told us it was standard language they include in all letters. Using such language is disingenuous, at best, and – as our commenter Kel McClanahan has pointed out – not allowed under the FOIA.
Bennett Amy Ack ltr 1
On December 3 the Department of Transportation joined the growing list of federal agencies that agreed to release their report to the National Archives on recommendations for records management in full. The email sent to us by Transportation included PDF versions of the release letter, the memo accompanying the report, and the report (all available below).
As luck would have it, I got to talk about my request and this project with Transportation’s FOIA officer at a recent meeting of the American Society of Access Professionals (ASAP), a nongovernmental organization that brings together FOIA professionals from the government and the requester community (the report had landed in my email in-box prior to this discussion). As we expected when we first formulated this project, Transportation’s initial impulse was to withhold at least some of the material under exemption b5, which protects inter- and intra- governmental information. B5 exists at least in part to make sure that people within the government feel free to offer a full range of advice and opinions prior to a decision being made. Before making a final determination, however, the FOIA officer assessed whether the release of its recommendations to NARA would actually have a chilling effect on their willingness to provide input in the future. Transportation ultimately decided that it would not, and released the report in full.
The analysis Transportation described going through before applying the B5 exemption is exactly the kind of action all agencies need to go through in order to live up to the current Administration’s FOIA policy. As some of you may remember, a few months after taking office, Attorney General Holder directed agencies to use their discretion in applying FOIA exemptions. We hope all agencies are following in Transportation’s footsteps.
Two days after we received our “electronically released” report from the Department of Labor, we received an email with a scanned copy of Labor’s response letter and the requested report attached.
Labor – Electronic Release
On 11/1/2012 the VA emailed us the requested record in full. The note also said that my request for a fee waiver was moot as no fees were assessed in responding to the request.