FOIA council seeks level playing field for ‘overwhelming’ IT acquisition process

Faced with another record-breaking year of new Freedom of Information Act requests, a governmentwide council of FOIA officers has recommended leveling the playing field for agencies struggling to modernize their IT amid a surging workload.

The Chief FOIA Officers Council’s technology subcommittee has recommended adding commercial, off-the-shelf FOIA and records management software to the General Services Administration’s schedules program, giving agencies an opportunity to purchase these tools without having to shop around for the best deal.

Michael Sarich, the Veterans Health Administration’s FOIA director, and the technology subcommittee’s co-chair, said agencies face a wide range of prices and functionality for the same commercial, off-the-shelf FOIA software.

“A lot of agencies have difficultly starting from ground zero. It’s really hard to get started on making technological improvements and embracing some of these things. The variety of systems out there is overwhelming … They can’t make that argument to leadership that we need this if we’re going to be an effective FOIA program here in 2019,” Sarich said Monday at a meeting at the National Archives and Records Administration’s headquarters.

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Eric Stein, director of the State Department’s Office of Information Programs, and the subcommittee’s other co-chair, said the subcommittee’s upcoming final report will also look at ways agencies can standardize the tools they use for redaction and case processing.

“There were a handful of software packages being used by FOIA programs … We found that agencies used them differently,” Stein said.

The subcommittee’s 11 members see their recommendations as a stepping stone for greater adoption of artificial intelligence tools, which Sarich said could become a “force multiplier” for the FOIA workforce to cut the historic case backlog requests that agencies have seen an increase in recent years.

In fiscal 2018, agencies received 863,729 new FOIA requests, a 5.6% increase in requests compared to the previous year.

But research featured at a FOIA Advisory Committee meeting in March found there are only 4,500 FOIA officers to handle requests. That means each FOIA officer would have to process nearly 200 FOIA requests a year just to break even with the incoming volume.

Meanwhile, FOIA fees only cover about 1% of the half-billion dollars that agencies spent in 2016 processing FOIA requests.

Agencies experimenting with AI still remain in the “formative stages” of adopting this technology, Sarich said, and still rely on a team of well-trained FOIA professionals that have to conduct “line-by-line” reviews of FOIA requests once the AI tools have run predictive redactions and coding.

“FOIA of the future is going to be a combination of a really smart FOIA professional and it’s going to be computer-based,” he said.

But while some agency FOIA offices have experimented with emerging AI tools, the majority of agency FOIA offices face challenges in implementing modern-day technology.

“As you can well imagine, the spectrum for the use of technology in the federal family is really far and really wide. Some agencies are celebrating … the addition of a double-sided scanner. That’s a technology improvement, and for some agencies, that’s fantastic, that’s really critical. That’s going to help perform their mission in a better way,” Sarich said.

DoJ crafting new FOIA guidance following SCOTUS ruling

The Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy is also working on new FOIA guidance in light of a recent Supreme Court decision that redefined the scope of information available to the public under FOIA.

Bobak Talebian, DoJ OIP’s chief of FOIA compliance, said the agency would release updated guidance in about a month to reflect the Supreme Court’s ruling in June that companies have an “assurance of privacy” when submitting commercial or financial data to the federal government, and that data shouldn’t be subject to FOIA requests.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by the South-Dakota newspaper, The Argus Leader, which had filed a FOIA request with the Agriculture Department asking for data about which businesses received the most spending from people who received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

Argus Leader news director Cory Myers called the Supreme Court’s decision a “massive blow to the public’s right to know how its tax dollars are being spent, and who is benefiting.”

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