FOIA portal opens to public


A small collection of agencies opened Oct. 1 to the public a portal for the processing of Freedom of Information Act requests.

The portal, dubbed FOIAonline and which government officials say cost $1.3 million to develop, was spearheaded by the Environmental Protection Agency and is based on code from the portal, which the EPA also manages.

Agencies accepting FOIA requests through the portal today are the EPA, the Commerce Department (excepting, for now, the Patent and Trademark Office), the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Federal Labor Relations Authority, and portions of the National Archives and Records Administration.

NARA will connect all its components to the portal "on a rolling basis," said Miriam Nisbet, director of NARA's office of government information services.

The Treasury Department will join over the course of fiscal 2013, which begins today, said Joey Hutcherson, the Commerce Department FOIA portal program manager. EPA paid for the bulk of the development, Hutcherson said, adding that it will save money by shutting down FOIA Express, a commercial off-the-shelf system.

Total annual operating costs will likely total between $500,000 to $720,000, Hutcherson said, and will be shared by participating agencies on a proportional basis. Agency shares will be less than the cost of implementing a commercial system, he added. "It would have cost Commerce over $6 million to go to an online system, if we were to go to a commercial off-the-shelf-system," he said.

Sponsoring agency officials have said they hope the portal becomes a governmentwide tool for FOIA processing. "The more agencies that use it, the bigger, the more useful it's going to be to the FOIA requesters," Nisbet said.

The FOIA portal doesn't integrate with existing electronic FOIA processing systems. For most of Commerce--except PTO--that isn't a problem, Hutcherson said, since departmental components managed FOIA requests with unscalable Access databases, Excel spreadsheets and pen and paper.

Other agencies, Nisbet and Hutcherson said independently, will likely sign up for the portal once they see evidence of it working.

FOIA processors have the option to publish the records granted to the requester through the portal, and Commerce will generally do so, Hutcherson said.

"If you can release the record, make it available to the public, there's no reason not to," he said. Participating agencies uploaded request data from the past fiscal year but not necessarily the released records themselves; they will mostly appear going forward, Hutcherson said.

He also said the portal will allow agencies to finally gain a better understanding of their FOIA processing costs through the electronic tracking of requests.

For more:
- go to the FOIA portal homepage
- download a white paper on FOIA portal authored by Hutcherson (.pdf)
- download a Hutcherson presentation on the FOIA portal (.pdf)

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