Starting two weeks ago, requests faxed to the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) started coming back as undeliverable. After several subsequent attempts and troubleshooting on our end, MuckRock reached out to the OSD. Sure enough, their fax machine is down … possibly until November.
Now, in 2013, you wouldn’t think this would be an issue. But when an agency accepts FOIA requests by a) fax, b) mail or c) a clunky online request portal that doesn’t play nice with other systems, suddenly that fax machine becomes a technical linchpin.
It bears repeating: The office that oversees the most powerful military in history (not to mention the best-funded) is unable to project when its single fax machine will once again be operational.
The OSD’s FOIA section chief confirmed the grim news yesterday, responding that his office “will likely need to procure (purchase) a new fax machine. However, that purchase will not occur until the start of the new fiscal year (at the earliest).”
Given its budget of a mere $31.8 billion for maintenance and operations and last year’s backlog of more than 1,000 overdue FOIA requests for the Secretary’s office alone, we urge the Defense Department to move into the 21st century. (They might even look into Faxaway, an email-based service that MuckRock uses for all its fax needs. It even offers free incoming faxes.)
FOIA is about facilitating the public’s access to government information and documents. Every agency ought to make maximum effort to make FOIA as easy and straightforward as possible, from request submission to fulfillment. And when technical difficulties arise, agencies must adapt. For instance, when the FBI’s digital copying capacity went offline last summer, its FOIA office printed responsive documents at no cost to requesters. We hope that OSD will follow suit and take this opportunity to make their FOIA process a more modern and efficient machine than an upgraded fax.
In the meantime, I’ve filed a request for the inventory of the OSD’s FOIA office, as well as their equipment budget to see if we can help find some savings for a spare fax machine for next year.