GAO: Government Agencies Slowly Adapting To Electronic Mandate Of New E-FOIA Law

WASHINGTON- Most federal agencies have begun to open electronic reading rooms and to expedite handling of the public’s requests for government documents, but several lag behind in implementing a 1996 law intended to speed the processing of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and to provide electronic versions of documents to the public, according to a new report by the General Accounting Office (GAO), Congress’s “watchdog” arm.

The report, based on a survey of 25 major federal departments and agencies which account for 97 percent of all FOIA requests, was requested by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the prime author of the 1996 “E-FOIA” law; Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs; and Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Government Efficiency, Financial Management, and Intergovernmental Relations of the House Committee on Government Reform.

The 1996 Electronic Freedom of Information Act (E-FOIA) requires federal agencies to set up electronic reading rooms stocked with frequently requested documents and reference materials to help the public locate government records or information. The law also gives agencies a 20-day deadline to decide whether they can comply with any given request, directs them to devise expedited ways to improve their responsiveness, and includes annual workload reporting

requirements to gauge their progress.

Asked by the lawmakers to evaluate compliance with E-FOIA, GAO found that most agencies have implemented many of the law’s requirements, but many have not made all required documents available electronically. For example, in four categories of FOIA information required to be electronically available, 15 agencies had information available in all four categories but the remaining 10 agencies had only some available.

GAO also found that in Fiscal Year 1999 the 25 agencies processed about 1.9 million FOIA requests, providing complete records 82 percent of the time. Twenty-three agencies reported that 1.6 million requests were processed within median times of 20 days or fewer. Understaffing and lack of training were identified as key reasons for backlogs and delays.

GAO found that:

    * Agencies are using electronic reading rooms to give access to documents and reference materials and also are using the Internet in other ways to exchange information, but not all required documents are yet posted.

    * Agencies are finding that the 20-day deadline for determining whether to comply with requests is often impractical because information often is dispersed among several agencies and some requests involve hundreds or thousands of pages that require time-consuming line-by-line review in applying legal exemptions, but new leeway the law gives agencies to refine what requesters are after is improving efficiency. Several agencies say they need more staff and training.

    * Agencies are beginning to use automated processing and specialized software to improve handling of FOIA requests, and a third have implemented multi-track and expedited processing.

    * Better reporting data and more prodding by the Department of Justice’s Office of Information and Privacy may help boost compliance and accountability. E-FOIA author Leahy said, “This is an effort to update FOIA’s charter for the information age. Some agencies have jumped into the pool with both feet, but others are still just dipping their toes. The holdouts have to understand that the customer comes first, and the customer is the public. There also are steps that Congress needs to take, including action to address concerns about inadequate staff and training.”

Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Thompson said, “The GAO report highlights how many of our agencies have used the power of the Internet to provide government information of public interest. It is also clear, however, that there is still much work ahead in order to take full advantage of information technology and comply fully with the E-FOIA requirements to ensure

the government provides all appropriate information to the public electronically.”

Government Efficiency, Financial Management, and Intergovernmental Relations Subcommittee Chairman Horn said, “E-FOIA will eventually open the doors to a new generation of citizen participation in government, but according to the GAO report, we’re not quite there yet. “We still face many challenges in ensuring that all federal agencies fully comply with the public’s electronic requests for information. I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress to help speed up the process.”

# # #