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Transparency Effort Wins Award, Loses White House Embrace

By Jim Snyder and Danielle Ivory
March 13, 2013 12:00 AM EDT 1 Comments

Two Environmental Protection Agency employees won an award this week for building a website to shed light on how the U.S. government operates. The workers behind the design are being hidden from view.

The EPA informed the sponsoring group that the two designers who created a web portal, Tim Crawford and Larry Gottesman, can’t accept the honor in person, said Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups that sponsor the award.

The decision may be an embarrassment for President Barack Obama during Sunshine Week, an annual public awareness campaign to promote transparency in government. Advocacy groups say the administration also may be missing an opportunity to save about $200 million in processing costs over five years, if adopted across all agencies to manage public document requests.

“My concern is they don’t understand it or they want to block it,” said Blum, whose members include the American Society of News Editors and the Radio Television Digital News Association. “The FOIA portal should be promoted.”

Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, is also getting a Sunshine in Government Initiative award for his “commitment to the flow of news and information,” according to a Sunshine in Government Initiative news release.

The portal -- FOIAonline.regulations.gov -- is aimed at improving the process by which citizens seek and obtain documents under the Freedom of Information Act, a process often faulted as slow and cumbersome. Open government groups such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington say the administration should be embracing the portal as a mechanism for reaching its transparency goals.

Citizen Frustration

“There is such a sense of frustration,” Anne Weismann, chief counsel to the Washington-based group, said in an interview. “People see the portal as the right direction to be going in.”

The EPA is a main sponsor of the website, along with the National Archives and Records Administration. The Commerce Department and two smaller agencies have signed on along with some offices within the Treasury Department. The FOIA covers at least 100 executive branch departments and agencies. Congress and the Supreme Court are exempt.

The website idea is winning fans in Congress.

Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican, and Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, introduced legislation this week that would direct the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to establish a single access point, such as FOIAonline, for FOIA requests.

Releasing Information

The bill also would require agencies to process requests with the presumption that information should be released, and only withheld if releasing it would cause foreseeable harm, a standard the administration says it already applies in responding to citizens.

Issa is the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Cummings is the panel’s top Democrat. The committee holds a hearing today on government transparency.

Individuals now apply to agencies in filing FOIA requests for documents. While many offices offer an electronic platform, others don’t. Citizens often file requests with the wrong agency, which can delay the process for months or longer.

Blum said creating a single electronic platform for all federal agencies would improve communications within government, reducing bottlenecks. Citizens also would be able track the status of their requests, in much the same way they can follow the process of packages delivered by FedEx Corp. (FDX)

Searchable Database

The FOIAonline site also would become a central repository for previously released FOIA documents, offering visitors a searchable database.

Sean Moulton, director of open government policy at the Center for Effective Government, a Washington-based group, called the FOIAonline website a “significant innovation.”

“It’s not everything people wanted, but it is a good first step,” Moulton said in an interview.

The biggest thing missing, he said, is agency participation.

On his first full day in office in 2009, Obama ordered federal officials to “usher in a new era of open government” and “act promptly” to make information public. His administration pledged to improve the FOIA process and to use technologies to increase transparency.

The White House calls FOIA “the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open government,” in a March 11 blog posting promoting Sunshine Week.

Turf Battle

Open-government groups are baffled the administration hasn’t embraced the site.

Some see a turf battle within the bureaucracy as thwarting the project. Transparency advocates said the Justice Department, which maintains an FOIA website, has resisted its development. The department’s Office of Information Policy has a site, FOIA.gov, to track response times, backlogs and the types of exemptions used to deny requests using the law.

Tracy Russo, a spokeswoman for Justice’s information office, said the department supports any effort to make FOIA work faster, and offered advice to the developers on ways to improve the site.

“Many agencies have online request-making capabilities and are exploring other uses of technology to further enhance the FOIA process,” Russo said in an e-mail. “The department looks forward to seeing the impact of the FOIAonline on the participating agencies’ FOIA programs.”

Centralized System

Weismann said OMB has been reluctant to embrace the site because it’s built on an existing platform, regulations.gov, that some users find clunky and difficult to navigate.

“We hope to learn from their experiences, and particularly whether and how a single centralized FOIA administration system can be successfully integrated on a wider scale,” the OMB said in a statement. “However, integrating a single technology across agencies is a huge undertaking, and has a number of challenges. While we are following this pilot project closely, OMB is not currently requiring agencies use FOIAonline.”

Miriam Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Services, a part of the National Archives that acts as a FOIA ombudsman, said some agencies wanted to see how the site worked before joining. She said a number have expressed interest in the five months that FOIAonline has been active.

Existing Contracts

Moulton said some agencies are locked into contracts with developers of their own FOIA electronic systems and breaking those to join FOIAonline would cost money.

Sponsors see the project as a way to save money, as agencies search for ways to trim $85 billion in the next seven months under automatic cuts called sequestration.

According to a briefing given to federal agencies, FOIAonline could save the government as much as $200 million over five years, compared to the $1.3 million it took to build the site and $500,000 to $750,000 in annual operating and maintenance costs.

The savings are based on participation by more agencies and come from trimming the time to process FOIA requests.

“This is something the president himself should be standing in the Rose Garden and saying his government is improving transparency and saving money,” Blum said. Bloomberg News editors are members of ASNE, which is part of Blum’s coalition.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jim Snyder in Washington at jsnyder24@bloomberg.net; Danielle Ivory in Washington at divory@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net; Stephanie Stoughton at sstoughton@bloomberg.net

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