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The New FOIA.gov – Making Spreadsheets Sexy

March 24, 2011
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One of the big splashes of Sunshine Week was the launch of the new FOIA.gov last Monday by the Department of Justice.  Nate briefly editorialized last Tuesday: “A crystal bowl is nice. But the proof is in the pudding.”

The new FOIA.gov is certainly an attractive website and does a tremendous job aggregating FOIA data.  Based on my own personal experience with the FOIA audit, trying to get this kind of aggregated data is downright frustrating.  Before the new FOIA.gov, the only options for getting these kind of numbers was to either check the wildly inconsistent (in content and availability) FOIA report summaries from the FOIA Post or sitting down and going through each agency FOIA report with a calculator and Job’s patience.

I will openly admit that I approached the new FOIA.gov with a high level of skepticism.  The flashy, Obama campaign-inspired graphics are aesthetically pleasing, but like Nate wrote, the proof is in the pudding.  After spending some time exploring the website, the new pudding is relatively good.

My biggest concern was that the data available on FOIA.gov would not completely match the full breadth of data available in the annual FOIA reports.  But, for the most part, all of the data available in the FOIA Reports can be found on FOIA.gov with the added benefit of being more navigable and readily available.

There are, however, some puzzling and even reality-bending shortcomings to FOIA.gov.  To test out the consistency between FOIA.gov and the actual FOIA reports, I picked an agency and put the Fiscal Year 2010 results next to each other.  The Department of Defense was the guinea pig agency.

The first divergence between the FOIA report and FOIA.gov is Table 10 in the FOIA report (“Reasons for Denial on Appeal – ‘Other’ Reasons”).  Since a breakdown of the reasons for denial that fall under the “other” category (highly obscure denials not based on exemptions, lack of records, withdrawn requests, fee problems, etc.) is not a crucial measure of FOIA performance, I can give FOIA.gov a pass on this one.  More significant problems can be found in the “Processing Time” sections.  When looking over these FOIA reports, these sections require extra focus because of the overly complex naming systems.  I can appreciate the DoJ’s attempts to simplify these tables by shortening the titles in the search fields, but they should label the tables with the full names as they appear in the actual reports for the sake of consistency.

If we look at the table for “Processed Requests – Response Time for All Processed Perfected Requests” (Table 13 in the DoD report or “Processing Time” on FOIA.gov), there are some major problems with the data.  According to FOIA.gov, a number of FOIA offices at the Department of Defense have been employing time machines to process FOIA requests before they arrive (“-1″ processing days)!  The actual DoD report shows that these offices are simply processing the requests in less than one day (“<1″), but the FOIA.gov tables weren’t thoroughly audited by the Department of Justice. Furthermore, the bottom line of the FOIA.gov table is downright useless.  Why would anyone want to know the sum of a table of medians, means, minimums and maximums?  The DoD FOIA report correctly reports this data.

The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Office of Personnel Management, and the U.S. Postal Service reports are not even available on the Department of Justice Office of Information Policy website, but their data is available on FOIA.gov.  The U.S. Postal Service does have its FY2010 FOIA report on its websiteThe Office of Personnel Management’s website is, at the moment, not the shining beacon for the FOIA community.  A link to its FOIA website is simply absent from its homepage (try http://www.opm.gov/efoia).  Once you stumble upon their FOIA website, they tease you with two links (one, two) to their FY2010 FOIA report – all of which are dead links.  “Oops! Document Not Found”: an unfortunate page to find on a FOIA website.

Finally, FOIA.gov only has data available for fiscal years 2008-2010.  I expect older data will be made available as the data aggregators churn through the older reports.  Until then, the old reports are still available.

As a final positive note, I’ll reiterate that the aggregate data available on FOIA.gov is immensely useful.  By far the best implementation of this data is the agency “At-A-Glance” reports.  These one page briefs cover all of the major categories that measure FOIA performance.

The old Department of Justice website had a page that listed the principle FOIA contacts for each agency.  Since the new FOIA.gov site appeared, this list has disappeared.  However, the list has been relocated to a new section of FOIA.gov.   Alongside the list of contacts are tutorials and informational videos on FOIA as well as a Frequently Asked Questions page.  All of these pages demonstrate the same emphasis on maximizing user friendliness and streamlining the process of finding information.

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