As mandated by the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 the United States of America has built and launched a new website for the public to make Freedom of Information Act requests at FOIA.gov, responding to the feedback and recommendations of transparency advocates, journalists and technologists as the site was built in the open online.
One of the reforms in the 2016 law directed the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Justice Department to build a “consolidated online request portal that allows a member of the public to submit a request for records under subsection (a) to any agency from a single website.”
There’s been a long and winding road to get here.
In November 2016, we laid out how to build a better FOIA.gov, in response to an inquiry from the Office of Management and Budget.
In 2017, we offered ideas, recommendations, feedback, and even alpha user testing as a project team at the General Services Administration (GSA) researched how the Freedom of Information Act was used, by whom, and when. That research culminated in a series of recommendations from 18F, the software shop within the GSA that built the website with funding from the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy.
In 2018, the federal website for Freedom of Information Act requests mandated by Congress in 2016 is a significant improvement over the previous FOIA.gov.
This new FOIA.gov is the culmination of years of work by many people inside and outside of the federal government, including former Sunlighters, members of Congress and their staff, the Department of Justice, Obama administration officials, and freedom of information advocates and technologists around the country.
FOIA.gov is a sterling example of what people can build together, over time, when Congress mandates action in the wake of an agency not following through on an open government commitment.
According to the Department of Justice, the new website cost a total of $1.8 million, including operation and maintenance expenses for FY18, which is a notable departure for the price tag of previous federal websites.
Sunlight’s communities are likely to find the developer resources for the new FOIA.gov of particular interest, including an API. The reports and data that were available on the previous version of FOIA.gov are now more cleanly presented and organized. (Farewell, insecure Flash plug-ins.)
While the upgrade won’t fix all that ails that nation’s canonical transparency law as Sunshine Week dawns across the United States, this modern, responsive website based upon open standards and open source frameworks is a welcome reminder that 18F can build beautiful services when an agency is willing and able to fund them.
While the requestor community is likely to find issues integrating the new site with the many different systems that federal agencies use to handle public records requests, this is a step forward.
“All agencies have a ‘landing page’ on the new National FOIA Portal, with key information and resources,” said Melanie Pustay, director of the Office of Information Policy – which operates the site – told Sunlight in an emailed statement.
“The Portal is ready to connect with agency case management systems via an API, but agencies will initially need to take steps on their end to connect that API to their systems. In the interim, agencies can receive requests via a structured email. For those agencies with existing portals, in order that they not lose the efficiencies afforded by those portals, the National FOIA Portal will temporarily redirect requesters to the existing agency portals.
Open for feedback!
It’s also noteworthy that the Department of Justice is signalling that it wants to hear about issues, noting in a prominent banner in the top of the page – and in its announcement – that this is the “first iteration of the new FOIA.gov” and that it will “continue to improve upon this site in the future and look forward to your input,” requesting the public to submit feedback to National.FOIAPortal@usdoj.gov.
When we asked the Department of Justice whether it will invest any more in improving it in response to public feedback, the director of OIP implied in an emailed statement that funding for improvements will be there.
“In partnership with OMB, we have identified a dedicated funding source to operate and maintain the portal to ensure its success in the long-term, with major agencies sharing in the costs to operate, maintain, and fund any future enhancements designed to improve FOIA processes,” said Pustay.
On a related count, we hope that the Department of Justice hears our petition and finally publishes “release-to-one, release-to-all policy” that it took public comment on in 2016 and President Obama directed it to promulgate in January 2017.
As we highlighted last year, many of the problems with FOIA cannot be solved with better software nor a better website with an API. The antagonism towards transparency by the Trump administration has been well documented by us and our allies.
Today, however, new FOIA.gov is live.
Now it’s time for YOU to use it to make requests, learn about the law, and analyze how agencies are complying with it in 2018.
This post has been updated with comments from the Department of Justice.