OIP Guidance: Agency FOIA Websites 2.0
Agency FOIA websites date back to the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996, Public L. No. 104-231, 110 Stat. 3048, which required agencies to use electronic information technology to enhance the public availability of their FOIA “reading room” records. At that time, federal agencies were rapidly developing websites for a variety of purposes. In January 1997, OIP encouraged agencies to include on their websites one or more dedicated FOIA pages. In January 1998, OIP issued guidance to agencies that included ten basic recommendations for agency FOIA websites.
Agency websites have evolved as technical capabilities have improved over time and internet use has become a primary method for information dissemination. While agencies have updated their websites over the years to account for new guidelines or policies, two of the most visible reflections of this evolution are in the websites’ style and design and the volume of material posted on them. The style of agency websites has gone from simple pages, containing a small amount of information and links to the far more comprehensive sites seen today that are designed with a uniform style and contain a wealth of information about agency operations, including administration of the FOIA. One of the benefits of this evolution is that agencies can create a unique online identity that is easily recognized and best serves their community of users.
While the style of an agency’s website helps the agency establish its own online identity, this has also led to differences in how similar or standard information is displayed across agencies. This is evident in agency and component FOIA websites. Fundamentally, a FOIA website should explain how to make a FOIA request, provide accurate contact information for the FOIA office, and include a link to the FOIA Library (formerly called “electronic reading rooms”) where information is already available without the need for a request. Key FOIA resources such as the FOIA Reference Guide, the agency’s FOIA regulations, and their Annual and Chief FOIA Officer Reports, should be easily accessed. The precise placement of this information on each individual website can vary, but by creating minimum standards for agency FOIA websites, and bringing certain information front and center across all websites, agencies can help promote uniformity and make it easier for the public to locate useful FOIA resources across agencies. Establishing minimum criteria for agency FOIA websites can also help ensure that requesters can access important resources regardless of which FOIA website they visit.
All agencies are encouraged to regularly review their FOIA websites in light of the following guidance to ensure that they contain essential resources, and are informative and user-friendly.
Include a Clear Link to FOIA on your Agency Homepage
One of the first places a user might go to find government information is the agency’s home page. All agencies should include a clear link to their FOIA website on their main homepage. The Office of Management and Budget’s 2016 policy guidance on federal agency websites requires agencies to include a link to their FOIA webpage on their “principal website and on any known sub-agency or other major entry points to their site.” The link to the FOIA page should be labeled as “Freedom of Information Act” or “FOIA.” While agencies may have other dedicated “Open Government” or “About” pages that may also include links to the FOIA site, the main homepage should link clearly and directly to the FOIA page.
Once a member of the public clicks the FOIA button on the agency’s home page, they will arrive at the FOIA homepage, the main page of the agency’s FOIA website. This page serves the vital function of efficiently directing the user to all of the FOIA-related content available on the agency’s FOIA website.
For any agency that maintains multiple FOIA websites, such as a FOIA website for each of its major components, it is important that the agency’s main FOIA landing page clearly identifies and links to those other subsidiary FOIA websites. Each of those subsidiary FOIA websites, in turn, should link back to the agency’s main FOIA landing page, so that no matter what page a member of the public first encounters, they can easily and readily access the full range of agency FOIA resources.
Ensure the FOIA Homepage Contains Key Information and Resources
There are three primary areas for agencies to focus on when reviewing their FOIA homepage:
- Proactive Disclosures – directing the public to material that is already publicly available in the FOIA Library
- Making a Request – instructing the public on how to make a request or to contact the agency about an existing request
- Agency Administration of the FOIA – linking to agency Annual FOIA Reports and Chief FOIA Officer Reports
Each of the topics listed above should be included on the homepage of the FOIA website so that the public can see at a glance that these three topics are covered. While agencies are encouraged to add other features and content to their FOIA websites, it is important that these three primary topics can be readily accessed from the homepage of each agency’s FOIA website. The key resources that should be provided for each of these topics are discussed below.
1. Proactive Disclosures
- Key Resources:
- FOIA Library
- Component FOIA Libraries (if applicable)
An agency’s FOIA website can be a vital resource for users to find information that is already publicly available without the need for making a request. To assist users in finding information that is already publicly available, agencies should include a link to their FOIA Library on the homepage of their FOIA website. If the agency maintains multiple FOIA libraries, they should be cross-referenced and easily accessed from the homepage.
OIP’s 2015 Guidance on Proactive Disclosures provides additional information and guidance on proactive disclosures and the content of agency FOIA Libraries. Agencies are also encouraged to link to other program websites or topical pages that would be of interest to the agency’s community of requesters as well as the public at large. Agency FOIA websites should be designed in a way to help users easily find information of interest that might obviate the need to make a request.
2. Instructions for Making a Request to the Agency or Inquiring about an Existing Request
- Key Resources:
- FOIA Reference Guide
- FOIA Regulations
- FOIA Contact Information
The FOIA requires agencies to create, and make available for public inspection in an electronic format, reference material or a guide for requesting records. See 5 U.S.C. § 552 (g)(1)-(3) (2015), amended by FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, Pub. L. No. 114-185, 130 Stat. 538. These FOIA Reference Guides (sometimes called FOIA Handbooks) are also required to include an index of the agency’s major information systems and a description of major information and record locator systems maintained by the agency.
The FOIA Reference Guide thus serves several very important purposes. First, by describing the types of records maintained by the agency, the FOIA Reference Guide will assist the public in understanding whether the agency, or a specific component of an agency, is likely to have the information they are seeking. Second, the FOIA Reference Guide describes the process for making a request to the agency. The agency’s FOIA regulations complement the FOIA Reference Guide and provide the legal rules the agency follows in administering the FOIA. Agencies can augment these resources by providing additional information on their FOIA website about how to make a request or contact the agency. They might also elect to present their FOIA Reference Guide in an easy-to-understand, web-based format, such as a series of questions and answers.
Through these resources, agencies should provide instructions for making a request, including any specific requirements, as well as any additional information that would be helpful for a potential requester to provide. Agencies are also encouraged to provide explanations as to why certain information is required or would be helpful to the agency in responding to request. Agencies can assist the public by providing a description of what the agency does and the types of records it maintains. If applicable, agencies can note whether other agencies might have similar or related records of interest on particular topics. This can be particularly helpful when multiple agencies are responsible for a given topic, such as the Departments of State and Homeland Security with regard to immigration and citizenship records.
The various ways requests can be submitted should be described (e.g., mail, e-mail, portal, etc.). If requests can be made via a portal, a direct link to the agency’s request submission form should be provided. The process and requirements for seeking expedited processing should be explained, as should FOIA’s fee provisions. The FOIA Reference Guide or accompanying text on the FOIA website should contain a general description of the FOIA process, including how the requester can obtain status information and an estimated date of completion for their request. If the agency utilizes multi-track processing, an explanation of the different tracks and the average processing times for each track can help the requester understand when to expect a response and the impact of the scope of a request on timing. It can be helpful to highlight the agency’s average response times, which can be taken from the Annual FOIA Report.
Agencies are also encouraged to, when helpful, explain what the requester can expect in response to requests for certain types of information. An explanation of the FOIA’s exemptions and the three statutory exclusions should be included. Agencies are also encouraged to include any other helpful information, such as an explanation, for example, that a requester will be less likely to receive information about someone else without their written consent.
There is no set format for how a FOIA Reference Guide, or its equivalent text on a FOIA website, should explain the FOIA process, but it is essential that it be easy to understand. Particularly in contrast to agency FOIA regulations, which are often more technical, information about how to make a request and what to expect in response should be conveyed in a user-friendly way that anyone can understand.
As part of these resources that describe how to make a request, it is important that agency FOIA websites contain accurate FOIA contact information for any inquiries from the public about a request that has already been made. FOIA websites should include a telephone number, email address or other means of contacting the FOIA Requester Service Center and/or FOIA Public Liaison.
Finally, in accordance with OIP’s 2013 Guidance, as a courtesy notice, agencies should include on their websites any limitations they might have on the use of technology to communicate with requesters.
3. Examining Agency Administration of the FOIA
- Key Resources:
- Annual FOIA Reports
- Chief FOIA Officer Reports
The last broad topic that should be readily accessible to the public concerns agency accountability in administering the FOIA. This is accomplished through links to the agency’s Annual FOIA Reports and Chief FOIA Officers Reports. See 5 U.S.C. §§ 552 (e)(3), (j)(2)(D). The Department of Justice, in turn, provides a single point of access to both these reports for all agencies on its FOIA website. The data from Annual FOIA Reports is also uploaded onto FOIA.gov where it can be easily viewed and compared with other agencies and over time.
In addition to ensuring that agency and component FOIA websites contain the above standard content, agencies should also consider the items below when reviewing their websites:
- Adopt consistent styling: Agencies and components should be mindful of agency and government-wide styling conventions. Agencies may have internal style guides or may consider ways to incorporate government-wide formats. For example, the U.S. Digital Service created U.S. Web Design Standards and makes several web templates available online.
- Use plain language: Ensure that websites are written in plain language so the public can easily understand the agency’s operations and FOIA processes. The Plain Writing Act of 2010, Pub. L. No. 111-274, 124 Stat. 2861 (codified at 5 U.S.C. § 301 note (2015)), requires federal agencies to write “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” More information about plain writing, including OMB Guidance, can be found on PlainLanguage.gov or your agency’s own Plain language webpage.
- Regularly review for accuracy and updated links: Agencies should regularly update their websites to reflect the availability of new documents or changes in process or contact information. Additionally, agencies should also regularly check to make sure the links on their sites continue to be active. Agencies are encouraged to review their websites for accuracy at least once each quarter.
- Collaborate to identify areas for improvement: Agencies should consider collaborating with their web teams to review web analytics. Becoming aware of the pages that are most popular, for instance, can inform whether they should be more prominently displayed or if additional related information should be posted.
OIP encourages all agencies to carefully review their websites in light of the above guidance. As agencies continue to find ways to enhance their web presence and site usability, and increase proactive disclosures, standardizing the types of information contained on all FOIA websites will allow requesters and agencies to locate information with greater ease. Although the individual styling of agency web sites may vary, clearly directing visitors to the FOIA website from the agency’s homepage and ensuring that the FOIA websites contain the above elements will help requesters better understand the FOIA process and submit their requests to the correct place.