A New Front Door for the FOIA Request Process

By Nick Sinai
Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow

On his first day in office back in 2009, President Obama emphasized the importance of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as part of a national commitment to open government. Over the past six years, despite growing request volume, the administration has processed more than 3.8 million FOIA requests — with over 90 percent of requests being fully or partially publicly released. These stats are arguably good in the context of limited resources, although others such as Tom Blanton provide a contrary view.

Open government advocates rightly keep the administration on its toes — pushing for more and faster disclosures. Recognizing the opportunity to improve FOIA, the Obama administration announced a series of FOIA modernization commitments in the second Open Government National Action Plan in December 2013. These include recently released training resources for FOIA professionals and federal employees, as well as standardizing FOIA practices across federal agencies, which is an ongoing effort.

But one of the biggest opportunities to improve FOIA is for the user. The process of making a FOIA request — knowing which agency to ask, and how to scope the request — can be confusing, especially for first-time requesters. And that’s why, as part of the 2013 Open Government National Action Plan, the president also committed to develop a new online consolidated FOIA service, to enable the public to submit a request to any federal agency from a single, user-friendly website.

As a down payment on this vision, the U.S. government quietly launched open.foia.gov this month. This service, designed to complement resources available at FOIA.gov, will help journalists, researchers, and the public better navigate the FOIA process — initially by providing some helpful information on how and where to begin a request.

This new service is being built by the General Service Administration’s 18F unit, in partnership with the Department of Justice, which oversees government-wide FOIA policy, and is supported by other parts of the U.S. government.

Rather than meticulously plan and build a fully featured website over the course of years, the team employs agile methodologies that emphasize rapid user-research and then testing a minimum viable product with users. The team blogged about the process and their initial design prototype, and have been working openly on github. According to the About this Project section:

We’re currently in the alpha stage of development, which means our site might not have every feature you’re looking for. Please let us know what’s working and what you’d like to see in the future — we’re actively improving openFOIA, and we base our improvements on feedback from users like you!

In the long-run, imagine this service expanding to include a single place to learn about FOIA, initiate and track a request (like package tracking on FedEx), have open conversations with a federal agency about improving a request, and find previously released FOIA materials.
Like any alpha product, it needs feedback! Send your thoughts to 18f-foia@gsa.gov or log them here directly and openly. The software is open source, so developers can also scrub in and help here.
Congrats to team for shipping this alpha release! Now the fun part begins, as they add and test features to continue improving the FOIA process…

Nick Sinai is an inaugural Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Nick is also a Venture Partner at Insight Venture Partners, a global software, data, and technology venture capital and private equity firm. He is a former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer at the White House. Prior to joining the Obama administration, Nick was a venture capitalist at Lehman Brothers Venture Partners (now Tenaya Capital) and previously, Polaris Partners.

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