FOIA Update: OIP Guidance: Recommendations for FOIA Web Sites

January 1, 1998

FOIA Update
Vol. XIX, No. 3
1998

OIP Guidance


Recommendations for FOIA Web Sites

The implementation of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 ("EFOIA"), Pub. L. No. 104-231, involves the development and use of agency World Wide Web sites for FOIA purposes, including FOIA "home pages" maintained by federal agencies and major agency components. See, e.g., FOIA Update, Summer 1997, at 1-2. As agencies continue in their EFOIA implementation activities, the efficiency and effectiveness with which they maintain their FOIA web sites can be expected to be the subject of increasing public attention, and it was the subject of a FOIA Officers Conference recently conducted by the Office of Information and Privacy for the principal administrative FOIA officers of all agencies and accompanying information resources management personnel.

The following is a discussion of the ten basic FOIA web site recommendations that were distributed at that conference. The Office of Information and Privacy recommends that:

1. An agency's main home page contain an item entry that allows immediate access to the subject of the Freedom of Information Act directly from that main home page. In most instances, the user of an agency's FOIA web site will access that site by first accessing the agency's main home page. In some cases, that person might have a general interest in the workings of the agency and become interested in using the FOIA to learn more about it. If an agency's main home page contains an item entry, or "button," that allows immediate access to FOIA matters directly from that main home page, the user will be able to reach that subject area most efficiently, without unnecessary complication. While there are practical limitations on the number of subject-matter items that can be included on an agency's main home page, the importance of the FOIA -- and of an agency's FOIA web site to the fulfillment of its EFOIA electronic availability obligations -- warrants its inclusion as a main subject-matter item.

2. The same approach be followed for the main home pages of major agency components. Many federal agencies are of such size that they contain sub-agencies, or major agency components, that administer the FOIA on a decentralized basis and maintain their own web sites. See, e.g., FOIA Update, Winter 1998, at 2 (describing web site of Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Direct access to FOIA matters is equally important on those component web sites.

3. Main home page item entries be clear and distinct (e.g., "Freedom of Information Act," or "FOIA") in identifying the subject. It is valuable for the user of an agency's web site to be able to move directly from the agency's main home page to its FOIA information, but that value can be lost if the entry on the main home page does not clearly pertain to FOIA matters. Clarity to the web site user is essential to the effectiveness of the site. Depending upon space constraints, agencies may shorten their home page listings to "Freedom of Information" or simply "FOIA," but any more general entries for an agency's main FOIA home page are not recommended. See FOIA Update, Spring 1998, at 2.

4. Each agency and major agency component maintain a main FOIA home page. An important part of any World Wide Web site is the main home page for each of the subject-matter areas that are accessible through the site's overall main home page. An agency's main FOIA home page serves the vital function of efficiently directing the web site user to all of the FOIA-related information that is available on or through the agency's web site. Likewise, this function can be served by the main FOIA home page of any major agency component that maintains a distinct presence on the World Wide Web and administers the FOIA on a decentralized basis.

5. The basic elements of a main FOIA home page include the following:

• The agency's FOIA Reference Guide (including a description of how a FOIA request can be made). A primary function of an agency FOIA web site is to provide basic information to potential FOIA requesters about the process by which the FOIA can be used at that agency. This function can be primarily served by the FOIA Reference Guide, or handbook for FOIA requesters, that agencies are now required to maintain under the amended statute. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(g) (1994 & Supp. II 1996); see also Office of Management and Budget Updated Guidance on Developing a Handbook for Individuals Seeking Access to Public Information (Apr. 23, 1998). This can include a link to an agency's Government Information Locator Service ("GILS") site, see id., as well as the name, address, and telephone number of the principal administrative FOIA officer of the agency or major agency component.

• The agency's current FOIA/Privacy Act regulations (including any proposed regulations). Beyond the basic information that is made available to the public through an agency's FOIA Reference Guide, all agencies must notify potential FOIA requesters of the formal rules and requirements for the making and handling of FOIA requests, through their FOIA regulations. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A). It is commonplace for agencies to address the related access provisions of the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a (1994 & Supp. II 1996), in the same or accompanying regulations. See, e.g., 28 C.F.R. Part 16 (1998) (Department of Justice FOIA and Privacy Act regulations). An agency's FOIA web site is an excellent means of affording widespread public availability to its FOIA and Privacy Act regulations, as well as to any revisions to those regulations that an agency proposes to make. See, e.g., FOIA Update, Spring 1997, at 1 (describing web site availability of Department of Justice's proposed FOIA/Privacy Act regulations during revision process).

• Links to all main FOIA home pages of subsidiary agency components. For any agency that contains major agency components with their own FOIA home pages, the agency's main FOIA home page will serve as a primary access pathway to those component FOIA pages. A clear, well-organized set of links to the main FOIA home pages of all such agency components will enable the user of an agency's web site to locate and reach the FOIA site of any major agency component that is of interest. Further, in any case in which a major agency component contains a subsidiary component that maintains its own FOIA site, that site can be linked, in turn, as well.

• The agency's annual FOIA reports, beginning no later than the FY 1998 report, listed by year. Under the FOIA, as amended, each federal agency is required to prepare its annual FOIA reports on a fiscal-year basis (beginning with the report for fiscal year 1998) and to make them publicly available on its FOIA web site. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(e)(2). An agency may also include annual reports for prior years (as does the Department of Justice) and should simply add (not replace) each report for each subsequent year. Once an agency has multiple annual reports available on its web site, it will be particularly important that it clearly indicate the year of each of its reports. The Department of Justice, in turn, will establish links directly to each agency's annual FOIA report, year by year, so that they may be accessed by the public at a single point on the Department of Justice's main FOIA web site. See FOIA Update, Summer 1997, at 7 ("OIP Guidance: Guidelines for Agency Preparation and Submission of Annual FOIA Reports"); accord 5 U.S.C. § 552(e)(3).

• The agency/component's electronic reading room. Under the EFOIA amendments, agencies are now required to provide the public with electronic access to any of their "reading room" records that have been created by them since November 1, 1996. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(2). This includes both traditional reading room records and any newly created FOIA-processed records that fall within the Act's new reading room category, and it makes an agency's "electronic reading room" a very important part of its FOIA web site. See FOIA Update, Winter 1998, at 3-4 ("OIP Guidance: Electronic FOIA Amendments Implementation Guidance Outline"). Agencies with major components that maintain their own web sites may maintain separate component reading rooms at those sites. See id. at 4.

6. Electronic reading rooms be clearly designated as "reading rooms" and contain index listings of agency reading room contents (with direct links to reading room records that are electronically available). The designation of part of a FOIA web site as an agency "reading room" is the best way to indicate to web site users that that is where they can find the newly created reading room records that are required to be made available electronically. Such records can be grouped according to reading room category (e.g., policy statements; final agency opinions; frequently requested, FOIA-processed records), with an indication if there are not yet any such newly created records in a particular category. An electronic reading room also may contain a combined index listing of an agency's entire reading room contents, with the agency making it clear which records are available at which location simply by having visible links to those listed records that are available electronically. See FOIA Update, Winter 1998, at 4.

7. Each main FOIA home page contain a return link to the agency's or component's main home page. For any user of an agency web site, ease of navigation is important. Therefore, it can be useful for the main FOIA home page of any agency or agency component, and other subsidiary pages as well, to contain a return link to the agency's or component's main home page.

8. Each main FOIA home page of an agency component contain a return link to the agency's main FOIA home page. Likewise, in order to facilitate a web site user's navigation from one part of an agency's FOIA web site to another, links from component FOIA pages to the agency's main FOIA home page can be useful as well. The more that such links are provided, the more easily even the experienced web site user will be able to navigate through an agency's FOIA web site.

9. All links be checked regularly (at least quarterly) to ensure that they are still accurate and current. One of the most important features of web site design is the ability to "link" directly to practically any part of any existing web site. But if a linked item is changed at its underlying location, or the connection is otherwise altered with the passage of time, that link may become useless and frustrating to the web site user. So it is recommended that agencies regularly check their FOIA web site links for both accuracy and current viability, on no less than a quarterly basis. See FOIA Update, Spring 1998, at 2.

10. The text content of all FOIA home pages, including descriptions of links, be checked regularly to ensure that everything remains up to date. Similarly, the text portions of an agency's FOIA home pages, including the descriptions of its links, may become inaccurate or outdated with the passage of time. If an agency reviews the entire contents of its FOIA home pages on a regular basis, it can maximize both the timeliness and effectiveness of the information that it provides to the public on its FOIA site.

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