Many government Web sites fail to serve the public

While it may be easy for the U.S. government to get information on its citizens, it isn’t always so easy to obtain information on federal agencies.

A report issued this week by the National Security Archive Knight Open Government 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.

The poor state of agencies’ Web site access forces the conclusion that not only did the agencies 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 said, and the cost of answering information requests is driven up. In addition, the costs and backlog of handling FOIA requests – estimated at US$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 per cent) 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 per cent of the agencies had not 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 16 agencies (six per cent) had on its Web site all 10 elements of essential FOIA guidance that the archive’s audit identified, based on the E-FOIA statute, legislative history and Department of Justice guidance.

These include basic information about: where to send a FOIA request (by mail and by fax or electronically); fee status; fee waivers; expedited processing; reply time; exemptions; administrative appeal rights; where to send an administrative appeal; judicial review rights; and an index of records or major information systems.

– Only about one in three agencies (36 per cent) provided required indexes and guides to agency records, and many of these were 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 and National Labor Relations Board as the “Best Overall Agencies” online.

The Dirty Dozen: 12 government Web sites that don’t serve the public

– 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

Related content:

Secrecy and the perils of technocracy

Citizen satisfaction with government Web sites dips

Watchfire to release FISMA compliance product

The 25 worst Web sites of all time

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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