Thinking critically about the proposed FOIA portal

Recently, there has been a lot of hype surrounding EPA’s proposed FOIA portal, but with little apparent critical analysis of the as-yet-to-be developed solution.   What are the facts? What do we really know?

First of all, the EPA is spending taxpayer dollars to develop software that is already available in the private sector and is widely deployed within the Federal government.  PAL Web Portal, a FOIA web portal by which requesters can submit, track, and receive their FOIA requests online, already exists and is in use at several Federal agencies. Produced by AINS, the PAL Web Portal was developed as a solution to streamline request submission, document delivery and communication between requesters and agencies and provide a public reading room on which agencies can proactively post frequently requested documents.

Secondly, PAL Web Portal integrates with FOIAXpress, the leading electronic FOIA management system in use by over 180 government agencies and offices. PAL Web Portal automatically populates electronic case files with relevant request information—significantly speeding the FOIA process. The EPA portal has not addressed how it will integrate with existing agency systems.

In addition, most departments and agencies already have their own FOIA system in place, whereby, as is often necessary, they deal directly with requesters.  Is it wise to introduce a redundant system that creates an unnecessary middleman between the requester and the responsive agency?  Extraneous steps could burden an already time sensitive process.   Furthermore, lines of authority, accountability and liability among agencies have not been addressed which could lead to interagency confusion and conflict—further slowing the FOIA process.

Should agencies rely on an unproven system? What do we know about its architecture? The system, the infrastructure on which the proposed EPA portal is based, was not specifically built to handle FOIA.

Is a government developed system really the answer?  EPA’s development of this proposed portal, despite existing private sector solutions, raises concerns as government software has been proven to be more unstable and error-prone than private sector solutions.

Considering this, the public should take a closer look at the proposed EPA portal’s implications as well as the currently available private sector solutions. Particularly, when existing solutions that provide equivalent functionality can be implemented at a fraction of the estimated cost.