Government agencies slow to make info available online

Tuesday, June 9, 1998


WASHINGTON — Freedom-of-information groups told Congress today that most government agencies are dragging their feet in making information available online despite a two-year-old law intended to speed and expand access to that material.


The Electronic Freedom of Information Act, passed in 1996 and called EFOIA,
was designed to improve the original 30-year-old Freedom of Information Act,
specifically to get more information to the public about how the government
operates and to reduce delays in information access.


However, witnesses told the House Government Management, Information and
Technology Subcommittee today that the promise of the law remains
unfulfilled because many agencies have been slow to implement the
legislation.


“We view federal agencies’ response to the act’s requirements as slow,” said
Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of
the Press. “Many agencies have not yet adopted implementing regulations,
much less the electronic reading rooms and other reforms required by the
act.”


“We still have as our biggest complaint delays and lack of speed in
processing,” Kirtley said.


Michael E. Tankersley, senior staff attorney with Public Citizen, a
non-profit consumer group, said, “Unfortunately, many agencies have been
slow to implement these provisions and the Clinton administration,
particularly the Office of Management and Budget, has not provided the
leadership necessary to ensure full compliance.”


Although the 1996 law sought to address the government’s lack of adequate
inventories of the records that actually exist, most agencies still have not
complied with a requirement that they establish an index of all their
records, said Tankersley and Patrice McDermott, an information and policy
analyst for OMB Watch.


“There is the very clear indication that OMB and agencies in general … do
not put a priority on providing public access to public information,”
McDermott said.


The witnesses said some agencies were hampered in their compliance because
Congress didn’t give them enough money to make EFOIA a priority. But others
seem to view the 1996 law not as a legal requirement but as something to be
aspired to in the future, they said.


Not all agencies are moving slowly in complying with the new law, according
to the witnesses. James Riccio, an attorney with Public Citizen’s Critical
Mass Energy Project, said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission “has improved
both the timeliness and accessibility of information.” Previously, he said,
citizens seeking information on commission meetings would have to wait weeks
and frequently pay as much as $100 for a transcript of the sessions.


“Now, most transcripts of commission meetings are available within a few
days and can be downloaded over the Internet in a few minutes,” Riccio said.
“Concerned citizens now have the ability to access information concerning
the status of the nuclear power plant operating in their back yards on a
daily basis. They have access to NRC inspection reports, enforcement
histories of every reactor, licensee event reports and the regulations that
govern the splitting of atoms.”


Kirtley said Web sites set up by agencies such as the Department of
Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency, both of which have
good track records for disseminating information, are “heavily used by
journalists.” However, she said, the reverse is also true, with agencies
known for their “suspicious and non-communicative nature” having inadequate
Web sites.


McDermott praised the Department of Defense and the Federal Communications
Commission for having excellent search engines and home pages that make
research easy and information accessible. The Small Business
Administration, NASA and the National Science Foundation allow FOIA requests
to be submitted online, she said, and the Veterans Administration’s site is
particularly good for low-tech as well as high-tech users.


One agency uniformly acknowledged as having a terrible time complying with
FOIA is the Federal Bureau of Investigation. John Collingwood, assistant
director of the FBI’s Office of Public and Congressional Affairs, told the
committee that “delays in FOIA processing” remain a “tremendously
significant problem for the bureau.” However, he said the bureau was
committed to reducing its “intolerably high backlog of pending requests,
increasing our efficiency in processing requests and making our records
available to the public in electronic format.”


The FBI still has a backlog of 11,889 pending requests, Collingwood said,
but that was a 28% reduction from its peak of 16,426 about two years ago.
The average waiting period has dropped from around four years to 895 days,
Collingwood said. He estimated that 75% of those requests were from average
citizens seeking their own FBI files, with an additional 14% or 15% from
prisoners. The remainder come from individuals looking for information on
major cases or information about other people, which may or may not be
protected from disclosure by the Privacy Act.


Collingwood said the FBI has committed itself to eliminating the FOIA
request backlog by 2001 and “EFOIA will greatly assist us in that
endeavor.”


Richard Huff, co-director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information
and Privacy, also said the department was concerned about a backlog in
processing requests for information in the Immigration and Naturalization
Service.


Abel Lopez, acting director of the Energy Department’s Freedom of
Information division, said his agency has a 419-case backlog of FOIA
requests with an average processing time of around 495 days. He said more
than 100 of the backlog cases were delayed because requested documents
contained classified information and needed to be reviewed for possible
declassification.


Rep. Stephen Horn, R-Calif., chairman of the subcommittee, said the mandate
to create “electronic reading rooms” on the Internet — for viewing commonly
requested documents — would be key to cutting down on delays and backlogs
in processing requests.


But under questioning, of the four government agencies represented at the
hearing, only NASA said it had a procedure in place whereby materials
requested by two or more individuals are put online, eliminating the need to
file a specific request.


Among the materials frequently requested by the public and now available in
the NASA’s Electronic Reading Room are documents relating to the Impact
Credit Card Listing, Shuttle Mixed Fleet Manifest and Unidentified Flying
Objects, said Patricia M. Riep-Dice, FOIA officer for NASA.


Related:

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