Electronic Freedom of Information requests ‘put on the back burner’

Friday, May 1, 1998

The enactment of the Electronic Freedom of Information Act in October 1996 represented a monumental step in gaining greater public access to government information, but a recently released report reveals just how slow some government agencies have been in complying with the law.


According to the Office of Management and Budget Watch, a nonprofit research and advocacy group that tracks information policy, implementation of the EFOIA has been slow and in some cases, nonexistent.


The Report on EFOIA Implementation, distributed to journalists, government agencies and lawmakers, found that 13 of the 57 federal agencies (23 percent) have no EFOIA presence, 44 (73 percent) have varying degrees of compliance with the requirements, and not one single agency has fully complied with EFOIA requirements to package information in electronic form.


Patrice McDermott, OMB Watch's information policy analyst, said she's surprised at the extent of the lack of compliance.


In an interview, McDermott said: “A lot of agencies weren't really prepared to deal with this. For many, many different reasons it's not extremely high on their priority lists.


“Nobody has a clear responsibility for enforcing it,” McDermott said. “Also, there tends to be less communication and a real disconnect between the web folks and the compliance people.”


The Office of Management and Budget, the report explains, has the responsibility of providing guidance on information issues to other federal agencies. The OMB is also to take a leadership role in implementing EFOIA requirements. So far, the agency's performance has been poor, McDermott said.


Calls placed to OMB offices have not been returned.


“If OMB and the Congressional Oversight Committee take this serious as a statutory mandate and pay attention to it, then the agencies will comply,” McDermott said. “It will take journalists and others who use the FOI Act to put pressure on agencies to get them to comply.”


Said McDermott: “There are benefits to the EFOIA. “It will cut down on the amount of paper they have to process. It could be a great boon for them, but the immediate affect is devoting time and resources.”


“I don't foresee any dramatic changes in the future unless the OMB shows more leadership,” said Michael Tankersley, staff attorney for Washington, D.C.,-based Public Citizen.


Tankersley said: “The principle problem is that they just don't consider it a priority. It's being put on the back burner. They're not making serious strides to comply with the various requirements on a timely basis.”


Public Citizen is a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization with extensive experience in FOIA issues. Since its founding by Ralph Nader in 1972, the group has regularly used FOIA to request records related to its advocacy efforts and has represented FOIA requesters in approximately 300 lawsuits challenging government secrecy.


In December, the group filed a lawsuit against the OMB, the Department of Defense and other federal agencies for failing to provide information-finding aids required by statute.  


Filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the suit would require agencies to make a lot more information available about the type of records they have so people could use that information to craft FOI requests.


“Although many agencies are making tremendous use of computer technologies to give the public access to government information, several of the most important and prominent agencies–agencies that hold critical information and should serve as role models for government information policy–have failed to comply with basic requirements for making information accessible under the Freedom of Information Act,” Tankersley said.


According to the lawsuit, Congress directed agencies to make available a guide containing an index with a description of all major information- and record-locator systems and a handbook describing how to obtain information from these systems under the FOIA and other statutes.


The seven agencies named as defendants are the OMB, the Office of Administration in the Executive Office of President Clinton, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, the Department of Justice and the Department of State.


No trial date has been set, Tankersley said.