Justice OIP launches new pilot program for FOIA requests

Seven agencies are trying out a new approach to making documents available under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy launched a proactive disclosure pilot on Aug. 7 to measure the cost and effectiveness of making information available as soon as it’s requested.

Pilot participants include agencies or agency offices such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency and others.

The six-month pilot will use metrics such as time needed for processing individual requests and the costs associated with making the policy broadly applicable.

Melanie Putsay, Director of OIP at the Department of Justice
Melanie Putsay, Director of OIP at the Department of Justice

It’s a dilemma Melanie Putsay — director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy —is trying to iron out with this pilot.

“The goal is to explore the feasibility of increasing, quite dramatically, the amount of material that is posted proactively, ” Putsay said, in an interview with Jason Miller on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

“The idea is that OIP will gather all the data the agencies complied during the course of the pilot and we’ll do an assessment and see what conclusions we draw from the experience of our pilot partners.”

The pilot hopes to increase transparency in the federal government and the general public’s accessibility to this information. But first, it needs to address current issues with FOIA request requirements and potential time and cost pitfalls.

Moving away from the “rule of threes” for FOIA requests

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FOIA requests can already be accessed through FOIAonline depending on how frequently certain topics are requested. However, topics usually only become available after they’ve been requested multiple times.

The pilot encourages participating agencies to voluntarily post information after the first resquest.

“We’ve long interpreted that frequently requested provision to apply when an agency receives three requests,” Putsay said, “Right after one request, let’s make the information available to everyone.”

Part of making requested FOIA information public is making it 508 compliant. Documents have to be digitally coded for the visually impaired. That’s not always easy with older documents that need to be scanned.

“That’s going to be one of the variables that going to impact the challenges an agency faces in posting,” Putsay said, “We’re obviously very concerned that we don’t take time away from processing records because we now have FOIA professionals spending their time posting records.”

Restricting what can and can’t be posted online

Granting public access to information comes with the problem of what categories Putsay defines as “appropriate” to post online.

“We will be excluding … records that are released to requesters when they ask for their own records,” Putsay said.”For privacy reasons of course, those would not be made available to the public.”

Putsay also said that the pilot will also try to determine what other kinds of records should be restricted.

 Overall, the pilot is meant to give the easiest possible access to information for the public, but Putsay wants to know if the public is happy with the information they’re seeing posted during the course of the pilot.

OIP has set up a dedicated email address called ReleaseToAll@usdoj.gov  for anyone who has comments, suggestions and improvements for the pilot.

“We certainly welcome any comments from the public as we go through the public in the next six months.” Putsay said.

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