Disclosure Website Tracks Records That Might Never Arrive

Federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency created a website that may make it easier for individuals to access information kept by the U.S. government, a process that’s now often slow and cumbersome.

The site unveiled yesterday, foiaonline.regulations.gov, lets users establish an account to follow progress of requests made to multiple agencies using the Freedom of Information Act, a four-decade old law intended to open records to citizens.

“It’s more like tracking your package for delivery and less about an agency saying, ’Yeah, we’re working on it,’” said Rick Blum, coordinator for the Sunshine in Government Initiative, an Arlington, Virginia-based coalition of media groups including the Associated Press and the American Society of News Editors.

The portal debuted three days after a Bloomberg News survey showed federal agencies and departments, including the EPA, weren’t complying with the 20-day deadline the law sets for agencies to release requested information.

Bloomberg reporters asked for the travel records of the top officials at 57 major federal agencies for fiscal year 2011. Just eight of those departments complied within the period set by the Freedom of Information Act.

While the EPA was the main developer of the site, the agency was also among the 27 agencies and departments that hadn’t released the travel documents by Sept. 14, more than three months after requests were submitted. EPA officials have yet to disclose the records for Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Central Repository

Open-records requests now are filed directly with agencies and departments. FOIAonline lets individuals seeking documents make a request to a central repository, where users will be able to search for previously released records.

By registering at the site, users can track their requests to agencies participating in the portal.

“It should streamline the process, make it easier for requesters who don’t know where to go with their requests, and make it easier for both agencies and requesters to track status of requests,” said Anne Weismann, chief counsel for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

So far, five agencies and departments are listed on the website: the EPA, Commerce Department; Merit Systems Protection Board; Federal Labor Relations Authority; and the National Archives and Records Administration.

Blum and Weismann said the site will have greater value as more agencies and departments participate.

Scarce Resources

“Give the scarcity of government resources, making the best use of technology -- which the portal does -- really is the answer,” Weismann said in an e-mail.

Agencies and departments often cite the high volume of requests and limited resources for missing the 20-day compliance deadline.

FOIA officials whose departments participate in FOIAonline still will have to review documents line-by-line to see what information should be disclosed, meaning delays probably will persist, Blum said.

The government can deny requests for information that fall under nine exemption categories, including when the release would threaten national security or includes personal information.

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