Government Sites Aren't FOIA-Friendly

Monday, March 12, 2007

Federal agencies helped create the Internet, but most do not use it to inform the public about what they do, a study to be released today shows.

In 1996, Congress intended to keep government ahead of the curve by amending the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to require that agencies put more public information on their Web sites. Posting important and most-requested records online, the theory went, would burn through a raft of hard-copy FOIA requests, save money and eliminate waiting time.

But the new study by the National Security Archive, a nongovernmental research institute and library located at George Washington University, finds that 10 years after Congress passed "E-FOIA," agency Web sites distinguish themselves more for cyber-foot-dragging than for streamlined access.

A review of 149 federal agencies found that only 1 in 5 posts on its Web site all the records required and that even fewer -- 6 percent -- tell people how to request what does not appear there. Two-thirds do not provide indexes to their major records systems, or they provide guides that are so unclear they are worthless. Only 1 in 4 agencies includes an online FOIA submission form on its Web site.

This failure to comply with the law, advocates of open government say, amounts to another stiff-arm by the executive branch to Congress's demand for greater transparency.

"It seems like a no-brainer. . . . It's a very basic Web practice that was adopted by the private sector several years ago or more," said Kristin Adair, staff counsel for the National Security Archive and the report's primary author.

Amid all this opacity, a few agencies stand out. One of the most compliant, NASA, was instrumental in the development of the Internet. But so was the Department of Defense, one of the worst E-FOIA offenders.

-- Elizabeth Williamson

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