Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Agencies violate law on online information

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WASHINGTON, D.C. Ten years after Congress enacted the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments (E-FOIA), only one in five federal agencies actually complies with the law, according to a new survey released today during Sunshine Week by the National Security Archive.


Passed in 1996 and effective in 1997, E-FOIA ordered federal agencies to post key records online, provide citizens with detailed guidance on making information requests, and use new information technology to publish information proactively. The act's intent: Expand public access and reduce the burden of FOIA requests.


But most federal agencies do not follow the law, according to the National Security Archive's government-wide audit, "File Not Found," conducted with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


The Knight Open Government Survey systematically reviewed agency Web sites to cover all 91 federal agencies that have Chief FOIA Officers and the additional 58 agency components each of which handles more than 500 FOIA requests a year.


Key findings are:


– Only one in five federal agencies (21 percent) posts on the Web all four categories of records that the law specifically requires;


– Only one in 16 agencies (6 percent) posts all ten elements of essential FOIA guidance;


– Only 36 percent of agencies provide the required indexes of records;


– Only 26 percent of agencies provide online forms for submitting FOIA requests;


– Many agency Web links are missing or just wrong - one FOIA fax number checked in the Knight Survey actually rang in the maternity ward of a military base hospital.


"Federal agencies are flunking the online test and keeping us in the dark," said Thomas Blanton, the Archive's director. "Some government sites just link to each other in an endless empty loop."


"Public access on the Web to government information is the only long-term solution to the backlogs and delays that undermine the FOIA today," said the Archive's general counsel, Meredith Fuchs. "This audit plus Congressional oversight should provide a wake-up call to the agencies."


Fuchs cited the Education Department and NASA as "E-Stars" with excellent FOIA Web sites, and the Air Force, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Veterans Affairs as among the dozen "E-Delinquents." Last week, the Archive faxed the top FOIA officer at each of the E-Delinquents with advance notice of the Survey and the critical findings specific to that agency.


"It's appropriate that this important news is being released during Sunshine Week, when millions of Americans will be able to see it," said Eric Newton, vice president of the journalism program at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. "People need to know when their government is not obeying its own laws."


Download the full report at www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB216/index.htm.


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