openFOIA and Release to All
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
Posted by: Mary Mack
Seeking US government information has never been easier. While some requests have languished for years due to older technology and inefficient processes, 18F is working to increase transparency by creating a portal, now in beta, called openFOIA.
While there is not a “Google” master search across the government, there is a limited keyword search across agency descriptions. Once an agency has been selected, a page with an overview of the agency basic information appears. FOIA contacts, fees and processes are listed.
As an example, the Securities and Exchange Commission boasts a 5 working day simple request median turnaround and a whopping 620 days for a complex request. Just by looking around, a list of major systems for the SEC can be found. It lists Encase, Palantir, Recommind and an Evidence Tracking Tool as eDiscovery tools in use in the Enforcement Division.
Once a request has been made, agencies need to record locate records. Next they need to categorize and redact them for a bevy of exemptions.
The portal has links to the agency reading rooms where case information, procedures and granular reports on topics like “premium travel” and other subjects considered public information. Each agency has its own process and fees to request documents not already released.
Some agencies are implementing a “Release to one, release to all” policy where FOIA productions are placed online and made searchable. "Release to one, release to all" has the possibility to increase efficiency for agencies, and to speed information to requestors. The Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press (RCFP) surveyed its membership after complaints that "Release to One, Release to all" would create disincentives for investigative journalism. RCFP found their membership supported the policy, as long as “there is a delay between release of records to the FOIA requester and the general public.”
National security exemptions frustrate some reporters, and while “data being released through those portals is likely the stuff that the people inside those agencies want the public to see—the effective and efficient works of public service that the federal government produces on a daily basis. What agencies are less likely to share are all the documents showing how the public-service sausage got made. If the public wants that info, they’re increasingly being pushed to file FOIA requests,” said J. Pat Brown of Muckrock.
Miriam Nisbet, who has a distinguished career in FOIA administration, including founding the ombudsman office (the Office of Government Information Services) in the National Archives, cited estimates that federal administration of FOIA costs the American taxpayers roughly $500M per year according to Nick Sinai, Venture Partner at Insight Venture Partners and adjunct faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School.
For eDiscovery professionals, openFOIA is a quick way to find ediscovery production standards and agency process documents, in addition to finding what is publicly available about the organizations we serve and the cases we work.