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Many government Web sites fail to serve the public

By Layer 8 on Mon, 03/12/07 - 2:54pm.

Seems its ok for some portions of our government to go looking pretty will-nilly for information about us, but we can't get information easily about them. A report issued today by the National Security Archive Knight Open Government survey, found widespread failure among federal agencies to follow the Electronic Freedom of Information Act amendments that took effect in 1997.

That law requires federal agencies to use the Internet to make government documents easily and readily available. The study reviewed 91 federal agencies with chief FOIA officers, along with 58 agencies, such as the Air Force within the Department of Defense, that handle more than 500 documents a year.

Here are the top 12 sites worst Web sites for gleaning information according to the group:

  • Air Force (Department of Defense)
  • Department of Defense
  • Department of Interior
  • Department of Labor
  • Federal Labor Relations Authority
  • Immigration & Customs Enforcement (Department of Homeland Security)
  • Office of the Director of National Intelligence
  • Office of National Drug Control Policy
  • Small Business Administration
  • Transportation Security Administration (Department of Homeland Security)
  • U.S. Trade Representative
  • Department of Veterans Affairs

The poor state of agencies Web site access forces the conclusion that not only did theagencies ignore Congress, but lack of interest in Freedom of Information Act programs is so high that many agencies have failed even to keep their FOIA Web sites on par with their general agency Web sites, the study said. Congress's best intentions have not had the desired impact meaning the public is blocked from easier access to information, the report says, and the cost of answering information requests is driven up.

In addition the costs and backlog of handling FOIA requests - estimated at $319 million in 2005 - could be sharply reduced if agencies used the Web more efficiently, the report said. Key findings included:

* Only about one in five (21%) of the agencies reviewed had on its FOIA site all four categories of records that Congress explicitly required agencies to post. This audit found 41% of the agencies had not even posted frequently requested records.

* Agencies have generally failed to use the Internet as a means to reduce the FOIA burden by posting as a matter of course records related to matters of strong public interest or categories of records generally requested by the public.

* Only one in sixteen agencies (6%) had on its Web site all ten elements of essential FOIA guidance that the Archive's audit identified based on the E-FOIA statute, legislative history, and DOJ guidance. These include basic information on: (1) where to send a FOIA request (by mail and by fax or electronically), (2) fee status, (3) fee waivers, (4) expedited processing, (5) reply time, (6) exemptions, (7) administrative appeal rights, (8) where to send an administrative appeal, (9) judicial review rights, and (10) an index of records or major information systems.

* Only about one in three agencies (36%) provided required indexes and guides to agency records, and many of those are incomprehensible or unhelpful. The guidelines for major information system indexes and the related Government Information Locator Service (GILS) program need a major overhaul. The news wasn't all bad. The group cited the Department of Education, Department of Justice Federal Trade Commission, National Aeronautics & Space Administration National Labor Relations Board a the "Best Overall Agencies" online.