Federal agency program officers should consult with their records managers when procuring new technology, upgrading existing technology, or creating a new database, a senior official at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) told the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 11.
“At any given time, agencies across the government are working to update or purchase new information technology infrastructure,” said Miriam Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS). “[They should] consult with their records managers and FOIA professionals to best determine how the records will be managed, how the agency might efficiently and effectively search for records in response to FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests for the information contained in those records, and, ideally, how the agency might proactively disclose the information or data.”
Nisbet’s comments were made in testimony at a hearing the committee held to explore ways to improve open government and freedom of information in the digital age. Despite progress in reducing backlogs of FOIA requests, studies show that impediments to the FOIA process remain, and progress has come much too slowly.
In a study released in March, the Center for Effective Government found that almost half of the 15 agencies that receive more than 90% of all FOIA requests failed to earn a passing grade on three performance areas – speed and completeness in processing requests, disclosure rules, and the utility of agency websites.
“I am concerned that the growing trend towards relying upon FOIA exemptions to withhold large swaths of government information is hindering the public's right to know,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who called the hearing. “That is why I have long supported adding a public interest balancing test to the FOIA statute, so that Federal agencies consider the public interest in the disclosure of government information before invoking a FOIA exemption.”
In her testimony, Nisbet noted that the FOIA statute directs the OGIS to recommend policy changes to Congress and the president to improve FOIA administration. She said her office intends to pursue the idea of embedding FOIA into federal information technology policy though the Chief Information Officers Council.
“Given the close link between records management and FOIA, we think folding FOIA into this Council objective makes a lot of sense from an efficiency standpoint,” she said.