White House Plans Government-Wide Freedom of Information Act Website

December 16, 2013

napcoverLast week, President Obama announced the 2013 U.S. Open Government National Action Plan with input from the public, civil society, academia, and the private sector, with the intent of building on lessons learned from the first plan. The 2013 National Action Plan has 23 “commitments” or action items, and the third one is Modernize the Freedom of Information Act:

Of interest to New Yorkers, The White House’s new plan calls for the creation of an online digital FOIA processing system with a public-facing portal for filing and tracking requests, as well as a back-end portal for FOIA officers processing and responding to those requests. We wrote about the EPA pilot program for this portal last year, and are pleased to see it rolling out to more than just a handful of agencies. (Read the rest of the plan here.)

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is the federal inspiration for New York State’s own Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). In 1996, FOIA was revised  and new reporting requirements created. The 1996 update requires federal agencies to report basic statistics that help agency management and the public better understand how FOIA is working.In contrast, New York’s Freedom of Information Law includes zero reporting requirements, and as a result, the public has no objective data on how well FOIL is working.  Federal agencies are required to report on the number of FOIA requests they receive, how quickly they respond to those requests, how many requests are granted/denied, how many Full Time Equivalent employees respond to requests, and so on. For nearly two decades, the US Department of Justice has reported how federal agencies process FOIA requests. New York State’s FOIL has seen no such update.

New York’s own FOIL law badly needs an updating for the digital age, and the new federal plan is a good place to find inspiration.