Vol. XIX, No. 1
Web Site Watch
NOAA Develops User-Friendly Web Site for FOIA
With this issue, the Office of Information and Privacy is introducing a new FOIA Update feature, "Web Site Watch," which will now appear on a regular basis. Following the enactment of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 ("EFOIA"), federal departments and agencies have been developing World Wide Web sites to enhance the availability of their FOIA "reading room records." Written by FOIA Update editor Pamela Maida and OIP Senior Counsel Michael H. Hughes, this feature will examine the development of FOIA home pages and other additions to the agency Web sites for purposes of FOIA administration.
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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is an operating unit of the Department of Commerce. In some instances, components and agencies share a FOIA home page with their parent organization. At other departments, many components have their own FOIA pages on the World Wide Web. NOAA has its own FOIA home page. Its address is http://www.rdc.noaa.gov/~foia/. Alternatively, you may access NOAA's FOIA home page by going to NOAA's home page, and clicking on "Welcome," where you will find the link. Agencies may want to consider a direct link from their home pages to their FOIA pages to facilitate ready access.
NOAA's page is basically structured as one continuous document, which is one example of how a FOIA page can be organized. As other agencies develop their Web sites, we will identify different formats that may be of interest to our readers.
NOAA's FOIA page is very thorough. It covers the range of information that the public needs to know about the FOIA, how to submit a FOIA request, and general information about how the agency handles FOIA requests. NOAA has made it easy to navigate from subject to subject. At the end of each section there is a link to the Table of Contents. NOAA's Table of Contents has clear headings, which are important as a navigational tool.
After a brief welcoming paragraph, NOAA provides the names, titles, telephone numbers, and e-mail addresses of its FOIA Staff. Next, there is the Table of Contents, showing the 13 major categories of information on NOAA's Web page. By simply clicking on one of the 13 categories, you will be brought to the portion of the document where this information is located. When you reach the end of your selection, there is a link to bring you back to the Table of Contents. This is an excellent feature. Requesters who have finished reviewing a particular subject or requesters who mistakenly click on a topic of interest will be able to return easily to the Table of Contents.
Some categories of information listed in the Table of Contents are not included in the main, continuously running document. For example, when you click on FOIA Exemptions or FOIA Fees you will go to separate pages.
Immediately following the Table of Contents is "Background/Overview." The overview consists of general information about the FOIA and its statutory provisions. Within this subsection are links to other areas, such as the FOIA statute, the 1996 Amendments, FOIA exemptions, and NOAA's FOIA annual reports.
NOAA has two entries on submitting FOIA requests and appeals. Again, these contain the basic information needed by a person who would like to make a FOIA request or to submit an administrative appeal. For example, it instructs individuals who are mailing their requests or appeals to mark the outside of the envelope with "FOIA Request" or "FOIA Appeal." In addition to providing the proper mailing address, NOAA also supplies its fax number and e-mail address.
In order to comply with the EFOIA amendments which require that agencies publish a reference guide, NOAA has provided the requisite elements, but in separate parts of its Web page. Thus, information is supplied on how to make a FOIA request, how to appeal, the types of records maintained, the availability of information through means other than the FOIA, and the location of major information systems. Agencies may wish to consider including all of the elements of the reference guide at one location.
Also, in accordance with the EFOIA's requirements, NOAA's FOIA Web page includes a section titled "FOIA Electronic Reading Room." Here, NOAA gives the geographic location of its reading room, where individuals may access both paper and electronic records. In order to locate other EFOIA-required materials, such as final opinions, policy statements, and frequently requested records, scroll down from the "Electronic Reading Room," as these topics are not separately itemized in the Table of Contents.
A primary objective of the EFOIA is that agencies act affirmatively in making information available to the general public. In this regard, NOAA's FOIA Web page provides a wealth of electronically available information under "Other Public Information Servers." For example, here we find links to the U.S. Superintendent of Documents, the NOAA Environmental Information HomePage, and the NOAA Library. From these links, a user can obtain access to materials such as maps, charts, satellite images, and environmental information databases. The major advantage of this type of electronic availability is that a FOIA request is not necessary to obtain access.
An important aspect of all FOIA home pages is the ability to link from one agency's home page to another. In this instance, NOAA has linked to "Your Right to Federal Records," and the Justice Department's "Guide to the Freedom of Information Act" and FOIA Administrative and Legal Contacts at Federal Agencies.
NOAA's FOIA home page is a good illustration of the fact that because of the EFOIA, agencies are acting affirmatively in making information available to the public.
Go to: FOIA Update Home Page