House panel to examine compliance with freedom-of-information act

Tuesday, June 9, 1998

Even as journalists and freedom-of-information activists cheered the passage of the federal Electronic Freedom-of-Information Act in October 1996, they knew it would not instantaneously allow easy electronic access to government information.

“Sorting out EFOI will take time. Making it work may take more time. Learning how to use it as an information-gathering tool will test our patience,” wrote Kyle E. Niederpruem, Society of Professional Journalists' Freedom-of-Information chair, in the group's FOI Alert.

The enactment of the EFOIA drove Americans' right to know into the electronic age but implementation seems to be, by most accounts, stuck and in some cases stalled in the slow lane.

Today, the U.S. House Oversight Committee on Freedom-of-Information issues is holding a hearing to examine how government agencies are doing in implementing EFOIA.

“The legislation is good on its face,” said Jane Kirtley of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “The problem is that most agencies haven't gotten around to complying with its requirements. They've been extremely slow getting it into place.”

Kirtley is expected to testify before the committee. She said: “There are a few agencies that have been very good—some even have interactive Web sites. But too few have moved to implement its provisions. Some haven't even started to fulfill its provisions.”

The act requires computer-based public information kept by federal agencies—in addition to paper records—be available in electronic form—via computer diskette, CD-ROM or the Internet.

In late April, the Office of Management and Budget Watch, a nonprofit research and advocacy group that tracks information policy, released a report revealing just how slow some government agencies have been in implementing EFOIA.

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

Patrice McDermott, OMB Watch's information policy analyst, said that many government agencies were not prepared to deal with the act.

“For many, many different reasons it's not extremely high on their priority lists,” McDermott said. “Nobody has a clear responsibility for enforcing it. 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. McDermott rates the agency's performance so far as poor.

“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.”

Phone calls placed to the Office of Management and Budget have not been returned.