Tag Archives: FOIAonline

Commerce Goes FOIAoffline

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.”

Untitled

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.

Commerce Report

Commerce Response

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EPA Gets Back (to FOIA)online. More Search Troubles

I got two more emails about my request to the EPA this morning. The first was another email from the FOIA processor with the requested record attached (the third). Hopefully that is the last time the EPA sends me a copy of the report, though, since the second email was to let me know that my request was now closed and the record was available through my FOIAonline account.

Success

Now that the report is, theoretically, online and available for any member of the public who is interested in records management issues (don’t laugh…there are people who are interested, I promise), I decided to see how easy it would be to find the report.

I logged out of my account and tried a search of records released by the EPA using the search terms “Records Management” and “report.”

EPA RM Search

Which yielded 2,300 results

EPA Search Results

I tried adding in other terms (including my name, a trick I used to find the report released to me by the Merit Service Protection Board) to narrow my results and was able to bring the number of results down to a more manageable 42. My requested report was not among the results, however.

I went back to the larger pool of results and decided to take advantage of the option to download the results as an Excel file.

Download

It was much easier to sort through the Excel version of the results. Unfortunately, however, my requested report was not included in the sheet.

As a final resort, I tried searching the tracking number.

No Luck Chuck

Still no luck. It appears I can access the record online at this point, but it is not yet available for the public.

EPA Sends Me the Record Again…Still Not Using FOIAonline

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.

A Final Response from DHS – and thoughts on why all FOIA responses should be online

On February 6 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) granted my request in full, and emailed me the records. According to the response letter, the release is in response to the request I filed back in October.

Here is the report and response letter:

Bennett Final Response

As followers of this blog may remember, when I called to check on the status of the October request a few months ago, DHS said it had no record of ever receiving it and asked me to please resubmit the request. A call to follow-up on the re-submitted request revealed that DHS had found the original request and were already processing it.

The only outstanding issue at DHS now is what happened to the second request I submitted. Hopefully, DHS disregarded that request once it found the old one (though it would have been nice of them to at least notify me). At worst, DHS is still processing my second request and I may get another copy of the report.

Actually, at the VERY worst, DHS applies some exemptions to the report the next time it is reviewed and sends me a redacted version. An agency applying exemptions inconsistently to the same document is certainly not without precedence – our friends over at the National Security Archive have some great examples from the world of classified documents.

This brings me to another reason why by default all records the government releases under the FOIA should be available online. At least one of the reasons exemptions are sometimes applied inconsistently is that at most agencies FOIA reviewers have no way to know how other reviewers have treated the same document. If all of the released documents were online, reviewers could look to the records already online to see how exemptions have been applied to similar records.

Making all records released under the FOIA available online is a common-sense solution to addressing some (though clearly not all) of the public’s frustrations with the federal FOIA system. As we’ve discussed previously, it is good policy for the public because it means we can access more records without having to file a FOIA request, and it is good policy for the government because it will have to process less requests for the same document.

Agencies already participating in the FOIAonline service currently have the option of making records released under the FOIA available in a (somewhat) searchable central repository. We hope that agencies using FOIAonline start to make better use of this feature. Agencies do not have to wait to join FOIAonline to start making this a common practice, though. We hope that all agencies start to think about how they can make material released under the FOIA more accessible.

EPA Eschews FOIAOnline?

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:

Correspondence

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

Testing FOIAOnline’s Search Function – Fail

This morning we were pleasantly surprised to find that an electronic version of the report the MSPB released to us under the FOIA had been added to FOIAOnline’s database. 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. Obviously, these searches will not help cut down on similar requests, however, if searches don’t turn up the correct documents.

We decided to test FOIAOnline’s search system by looking for the report that had been released to us by the MSPB. To make it easier to find the record, we only searched for released documents at the MSPB.

Search_MSPB

Unfortunately, searches on terms we assumed anyone interested in records management would use – electronic records and records management – turned up no results — likely because the record is not appropriately meta-tagged.

FOIAOnline-No-Results

The only search that did turn up a copy of the MSPB report used the last name of the requester — certainly not a general search term someone interested in records management would think to use.

It’s great that the report is now available in an electronic format, but to fully reap the benefits of the system, it must be appropriately meta-tagged and findable.

 

Checking on our FOIAOnline Requests

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.

FOIAOnline-11-30-12

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.

MSPB-Electronic-Record

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…