Digital Tablet

The United States could dramatically improve the speed of responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests while also dramatically decreasing the cost of maintaining and providing access to government public records if they transitioned to entirely digital records.

For all practical intents and purposes in today’s high-tech Digital Age, paper documents have suffered the same permanent fate as prehistoric dinosaurs.  This recent devolution is really a positive development for several reasons.  First, paperless files aren’t phased by the same dangers and perils that constantly face papyrus counterparts.  Electronic data can’t be destroyed by fire or water and never disintegrates from prolonged exposure to harsh external elements.

Likewise, digitized records don’t require time-consuming duplication prior to mass distribution, which is typically done via time-wasting manual ‘solutions’ like U.S. snail Mail, posting on cardboard bulletin boards and car windshields or hand to hand passing on public sidewalks during rain, snow, sleet or storm – come what may.

For all these and many other perfectly good reasons, the U.S. government has no valid excuse whatsoever to wait another nanosecond to implement full-scale conversion to paperless FOIA public records requests and access.

How FOIA requests are presently handled and processed

As of late December 2015, all FOIA requests must be submitted directly to the specific federal agency (ies) that maintain the desired records.  No standardized request form or processing fees that apply universally are published anywhere online.  Thus, each public records request is subject to a different set of formal rules and the process varies widely among various federal agencies.

Per the U.S. Dept. of Justice (DOJ), agencies process FOIA requests in the order received and send written acknowledgements shortly after initial receipt. Moreover, a vast majority process these requests manually and send paper documents that may take several weeks or months to arrive via return U.S. Mail.

Present FOIA request system poses serious public access problem

Besides a cumbersome task that’s very tedious and time-consuming, the above-described FOIA request process creates a huge administrative burden for all parties concerned. Not to mention wasting colossal sums of federal taxpayers’ funds.  In addition, the current request process has a flipside that presents a huge downside that prevents government officials from being held fully accountable.  Its grossly disparate adverse impact lies in often exorbitant fees required to process FOIA requests that are cost-prohibitive for low-income citizens.  Indeed, even affluent Americans, news media and civil rights watchdog groups face such long waits for mandatory FOIA disclosures that renders the request process an entirely moot exercise in futility.

Solutions to systemic problems

Per the U.S. Office of Government Information Systems FOIA Ombudsman’s Office, a recent audit found that over half of nearly 100 federal agencies had failed to update their respective internal FOIA regulations since the 2007 OPEN Government Act passage.   Also, the private independent auditor National Security Archive reportedly discovered that 17 of those federal agencies had failed to comply with 1996 E-FOIA rules by posting regulations on their FOIA websites.

In view of these and many other deficiencies and blatant violations, the FOIA Ombudsman recommended immediate full-scale implementation of three changes:

  • Draft a full schedule of fees limited to reasonable standard charges;
  • Delegate specific agency components with responsibility to receive and process FOIA requests; and,
  • Devise an effective scheme for expedited FOIA request processing.

Besides the above-listed remedial measures, it might be a good idea for federal bureaucrats to take a closer look at their own recent FOIA amended legislation.  Specifically, the latest revisions that authorized federal agencies to have specialized regulations that provide multi-tracking processing mechanisms and aggregation of multiple requests from the same individual or group of collaborative FOIA requesters.

How to speed up your own FOIA request

First, conduct at least a brief cursory search to find out if the data you desire can be freely accessed online or elsewhere.  If not, your next best stop is the DOJ’s official website FOIA request feature that lists each federal agency’s designated contact data.  Many listed agencies also maintain online FOIA request submission portals. Third, create a customized written form that identifies each record you seek in precise terms that are as clear and as concise as possible.  Try to target as few documents per request as possible.  File separate requests for a single high-volume FOIA research project.  That may let you begin without undue delay and possibly discover previously unknown issues that indicate new request(s) for entirely different types of documents.