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GCN : May 2014
GCN MAY 2014 • GCN.COM 11 Federal agencies are expanding their use of technology --- from social media broadcasts that highlight new informa- tion to records management systems for easier searching --- in an effort to become more transparent and effec- tive in meeting a rising number of FOIA requests every year. Several Justice Department divisions, for example, are using electronic plat- forms to improve work ows, automate searches and deduplicate processes in meeting Freedom of Information Act requests. At the Federal Trade Commission, staff members update monthly logs on a public website to help people track FOIA requests. And the Department of Homeland Security has posted more than 16,000 pages of records such as procurement documents over the past year. At the Defense Department, the Defense Freedom of Information and Policy Of ce is nalizing an internal, centralized FOIA site within Intelink --- a le transfer system --- to help make processing requests faster and more ef cient. In recently led annual reports to DOJ, chief FOIA of cers outlined progress their agencies are making in addressing ve key areas outlined in a 2009 memo from Attorney General Eric Holder. These include: applying the presump- tion of openness; ensuring that effec- tive systems are in place to respond to requests; increasing proactive disclo- sures; expanding use of technology; and expediting requests while reducing backlogs. A DOJ blog is highlighting achievements by federal agencies in each area. Yet while agencies are improving FOIA administration and processing us- ing technology, critics say they still have a long way to go. Amy Bennett, assistant director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of watchdog groups that advocates for greater government openness and ac- countability, said DOJ has been more of a "cheerleader" for agencies rather than pointing out problem areas. She said while technology is helping streamline FOIA processing here and there, "tech- nology has much greater power if you use it throughout the entire process." For example, she said until recently DOJ opposed the concept of a cen- tralized portal --- such as FOIAonline --- where users can make and manage a single request rather than going to hundreds of different portals. Bennett said that it's not just about improving service for requesters, but also making sure agency systems can talk to each other. "Right now, if an agency has to con- sult with another agency because part of the record or information belongs to another agency, they send it off to that agency and that agency reviews it and then sends the documents back. A lot of that is being done over the U.S. mail because the systems don't talk to each other," she said. "And that's not a 21st century practice." Bennett's concerns are echoed in re- cent reports by other watchdog groups. In March, the non-pro t National Security Archive released an audit that found that more than half of 101 agencies, "have old regulations that simply ignore" Holder's guidance for a "presumption of disclosure." Around the same time, the Center for Effective Government released a report rating 15 agencies on three areas: process- ing FOIA requests, establishing rules for access and creating user-friendly websites and other online services. Only eight received passing grades, although the report indicated that the agencies scored better on technology than on the other two areas. • Agencies make FOIA gains, but will it satisfy the critics? BY DIBYA SARKAR Agencies are taking different approach- es in automating pieces of the FOIA process, including: At DOD, the U.S. Central Command has implemented software to remove duplicate records from computer pro- grams so FOIA processors don't waste time and effort reviewing the same document multiple times. The Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Secu- rity Agency and others are planning to obtain this software as well. Interior Department bureaus are using collaboration software to help speed up the document review process among several stakeholders and also post internal guidance for processing documents in response to requests. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is launching a new records and information management program to make it easier to search, locate and access paper and electronic documents, including emails, across multiple sites. The Federal Housing Finance Agency expects to launch a redesigned and updated public website to present information in a customer-centric way. It also plans to use document meta- data to improve searches, solicit feed- back from to better understand content priorities, use analytics and apply best website practices. Agencies take on FOIA automation