GAO Report Confirms FOIA.gov is Not a FOIA Portal – But Does DOJ Agree?
Frequent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requesters like CREW have welcomed the ongoing development of a FOIA “portal” by EPA, with assistance from Commerce and the National Archives and Records Administration. The portal, now in development stage, would provide a central site for submitting FOIA requests, a central repository of all documents released under the FOIA, and an easy way to track the progress of pending FOIA requests. At the same time, the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) has been trying to push its own website, FOIA.gov, as the way to go, even going so far as to pressure agencies into not joining the EPA venture.
This unseemly effort by DOJ to monopolize the FOIA field led Congress to get involved, and in response to a request from House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted an audit of FOIA.gov. Last week GAO released its findings, which boil down to two things: (1) the feature of FOIA.gov that allows users to generate customized reports from agency FOIA data is not reliable; and (2) DOJ does not intend FOIA.gov to be a FOIA portal, like that being developed by EPA. This appears to settle the inter-agency controversy over which approach is best, FOIA.gov or the FOIA portal. According to the GAO report, both have their place and both complement each other.
But does DOJ really agree with this proposition? A careful review of OIP’s comments on the GAO report suggests OIP still plans to compete in the space occupied by the FOIA portal. While OIP Director Melanie Pustay “note[d]” GAO’s conclusion that DOJ “does not intend for FOIA.gov to serve as an internal FOIA processing system that would manage an agency’s FOIA requests,” she went on to list the features of FOIA.gov that she claims do just that. Just as troubling, she noted DOJ “is constantly exploring and planning” improvements to FOIA.gov “to do even more to meet both the public’s and agencies’ FOIA needs.”
In other words, OIP has no intention of backing down. Rather than concentrate on improving the quality of its data, as GAO has recommended, OIP continues to focus on how it can beef up FOIA.gov to be the go-to tool for agencies in managing their FOIA requests. In the private sector, competition like this can lead to better products. But in the FOIA arena, given the players involved and the unnecessary duplication of efforts and costs, the public is likely to emerge as the ultimate loser.