For ten years, the E-FOIA amendments have languished largely
unfulfilled and unenforced, while backlogs of pending FOIA requests
at federal agencies grow dramatically. FOIA has been marginalized,
underfunded, and at times ignored in many federal agencies.
As a result, the promise of a revolution in access to government
information through the use of the Internet has never materialized.
Not only have agencies not had the money or the will to comply,
but they have rarely been exhorted, much less ordered, to do
Congress, as well, has failed to demand compliance with the
E-FOIA amendments, which it passed with great fanfare more than
ten years ago. Only two hearings (June 1998 and June 2000) have
been held on E-FOIA oversight, both by a subcommittee of the
House Committee on Government Reform. In 2000, three years after
the amendments came into force, Subcommittee Chairman Stephen
Horn concluded that "the Electronic Freedom of Information
Act has not been as successful as intended. . . . In part, some
agencies do not know what the law requires." (Note
46) Despite that bleak assertion, Congress never followed
up on E-FOIA or took any further action to inform agencies about
the law or ensure that they were complying with it.
The law requires affirmative publication of particular records
and of already released records in certain circumstances. There
is no reason, however, that agencies should stop there. If there
are categories of records-for example, contracts, reports, licenses,
and the like-that are often the subject of FOIA requests, agencies
can and should make these available in their electronic reading
rooms. Further, when significant events take place, agencies
should proactively place records on their Web sites that are
likely to be requested. The agency may be able to complete processing
of FOIA requests by directing requesters to the electronic reading
rooms. Several agencies have used these approaches and can serve
as models for federal FOIA programs government-wide.
Moreover, agencies can take minimal steps to provide basic
guidance to requesters and offer options to smooth the FOIA
process. In particular, all agencies should make available a
comprehensive FOIA handbook, a task as easy as adapting agency
regulations or DOJ guidance into a format easily accessible
to Web users. In addition, all agencies should implement systems
for electronic receipt of and response to FOIA requests. Using
Web submission forms can cut down on manpower and facilitate
recordkeeping, as well as assist requesters in formulating good,
complete requests from the start.
Resources continue to be a problem for FOIA programs government-wide.
Agencies in many cases do not have the funding they need to
do their jobs well and comply with the law. This is a matter
for Congress, which must do more to ensure that FOIA is treated
as a priority rather than an encumbrance at each federal agency.
Continued oversight and direction will bring FOIA into the twenty-first
century and fulfill E-FOIA's transformative vision.
Section - Methodology ->
46. House Committee on Government Reform, Subcommittee
on Government Management, Information, and Technology, Agency
Response to the Electronic Freedom of Information Act,
106th Cong., 2nd sess., June 14, 2000.