Justice Department, GSA working on common standards for FOIA tech

Agencies are also considering new FOIA tools that leverage automation and machine learning, while a "FOIA wizard" is in the works.

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The Freedom of Information Act community is developing new technology standards to help improve FOIA processes and standardize common services like case management tools across government.

The Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy and the Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives are working with the General Services Administration’s Office of Shared Services and Performance Improvement to advance shared FOIA business standards, according to Lindsay Steel, chief of FOIA compliance staff at OIP.

The GSA office administers the Business Standards Council, an interagency team that has helped shepherd shared standards across areas like grants management and electronic records. Now, the council is turning its attention to FOIA.

“We really see this opportunity to develop standards that could help ensure agency’s compliance with FOIA’s procedural requirements and processing requests,” Steel said during a Nov. 3 meeting of the Chief FOIA Officers Council. “It would also facilitate easier compliance with reporting obligations, along with improved data quality. It can also help agencies keep up with increasing requests and reducing backlogs, overall, facilitating better customer service for the public.”

She said the technology standards should help agencies more efficiently procure FOIA tools. They can also serve as an assessment tool, Steel said, to help agencies look at their programs “with a critical eye.”

The first focus area for the common standards is FOIA case management systems.

“We think this is a type of technology that is the most wide-ranging in terms of different agencies needing some type of case management tool,” Steel said. “This focus will allow us to define data requirements that support FOIA compliance and reporting, as well as defining workflows and perhaps some other functionality and baked-in logic that can help facilitate efficiency.”

The standards work could eventually expand to e-discovery and other FOIA processing tools, she added.

New FOIA technology

The work on standards for federal FOIA technology comes as agencies consider new tools to aid in all aspects of the FOIA process.

The National Archives and Records Administration earlier this year held a “NextGen FOIA Tech Showcase” to identify technologies that could help agencies with their FOIA challenges. The event highlighted products and services from 20 vendors, ranging from case processing tools to automated redaction capabilities.

The IT Platform Working Group under the Chief FOIA Officers Council’s Technology Committee is now reviewing the data from the vendors and building a matrix that agencies can use to find different FOIA tools.

“What we’re hoping to do in this working group is to review all of that information, reach out to the vendors where appropriate to fill in any potential gaps in the data, and present to the FOIA community and to the public a fairly easy to navigate matrix,” Gorka Garcia-Malene, FOIA officer at the National Institutes of Health, said during the Nov. 3 meeting.

The identification of new technologies comes as more than a dozen agencies prepare to migrate off of FOIAonline.gov. The Environmental Protection Agency is planning to sunset FOIAonline at the end of 2023. The platform allows the public to submit FOIA requests to participating agencies, track a request’s progress, and search for information that was previously made available.

“If you’re if you’re an agency that’s looking to transition away, for instance, from FOIAonline, where you can go through and figure out what your needs are,” Garcia-Malene said. “Do you need to get a video redaction that might be a category in our matrix . . . to go through figuring out what your needs are in which of these vendors might best serve your needs.”

‘FOIA wizard’ in the works

OIP is also now working on an interactive “FOIA wizard” that will help users navigate FOIA.gov, according to Bobak Talebian, director of OIP.

“The wizard would assist users in identifying already publicly available information and also where information is not publicly available help them find the best agency to submit their request,” Talebian said. “We’re thinking that it will likely this this project will likely include a logic based and machine learning language processing tool that will facilitate an interactive experience to help users locate information or the best place to ask for information.”

The Justice Department awarded a five-year, $3 million contract to Forum One Communications to help develop the FOIA wizard tool. Talebian said the project is still in its discovery phase and invited those with ideas to reach out.

“The overall goal here will be that we’ll provide a much more cohesive, user friendly experience to the public on the front end of FOIA.gov, helping them find information that’s already out there, so they don’t have to make a request, help them make more targeted requests and also reduce misdirected requests by helping them get to the right agency,” Talebian said.

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