Discussions from the FOIA IT Working Group: Improving Agency FOIA Websites

August 12, 2013
The FOIA IT Working Group continues to serve as a collaborative forum for agencies to discuss the different areas of FOIA administration that could benefit from the greater use of technology.  One area where agencies have begun implementing innovative uses of technology is through the revamping and launching of new agency FOIA websites.  While agencies' efforts in this area vary, ninety-six of the ninety-nine agencies subject to the FOIA reported in their 2013 Chief FOIA Officer Reports that they have taken steps to make their websites more useful to the public.  At last week’s meeting of the FOIA IT Working Group, representatives from the Department of State provided a presentation on their recently redesigned FOIA website, during which they discussed all of the efforts that went into launching the site and the new features it provides both the public and agency personnel.  The State Department representatives noted that from the very beginning their efforts were focused on the idea that agency FOIA websites are one of the first places where the public is introduced to the FOIA.  From the first page, the State Department’s new FOIA website provides a wealth of information about how the FOIA works, the types of records generated and maintained across the agency, frequently asked questions, and several other useful FOIA resources. As a part of their demonstration, the Department of State highlighted a number of significant improvements that were made to the website, including:
  • Improved Document Searches:  The Department of State's new virtual FOIA Library allows the public to search across all posted documents using various search terms, date ranges, and the FOIA case number assigned to the request.  The site also includes tips for searching across the over 80,000 documents available online, as well as links to document collections on popular topics. 
  • Updated Online Request Resources:  The Department of State completely overhauled the interface the public uses when making a FOIA request online.  The new website provides a step-by-step online form that is designed to ensure that requesters provide sufficient detail when making their requests to avoid delays caused by the need for further clarification.   Additionally, the new website provides checklists of information that is required when making certain types of requests such as for personal or immigration visa records, as well as information on FOIA fees, standards for expedited processing, and other procedural aspects of the FOIA specific to the Department of State.
As the agencies in attendance discussed, the availability of resources will necessarily impact each agency's assessment of its website and what improvements or new features can be added.  However, there are many improvements that were discussed that can be implemented without the need for significant resources.  For example, simple improvements such as providing more information on FOIA websites about the types of records an agency maintains and how long those records are retained by the agency can be very helpful to requesters.  Agencies can also link to helpful FOIA resources provided by other agencies such as the Department of Justice Guide to the Freedom of Information Act and FOIA.gov.      As agencies continue to explore new ways to harness technology in their administration of the FOIA, the FOIA IT Working Group will continue to meet in order share the latest developments across the government.  Details on the next meeting will be announced here on FOIA Post and on Twitter at @FOIAPost as they are finalized.

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Updated August 6, 2014