With the closing of FOIAonline last week, FOIA.gov is now the central hub for FOIA requests and information about federal agencies. As the site sees more traffic and use, users might have questions about how to navigate through the site’s various features.
Bobak “Bobby” Talebian, director of the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy, spoke with MuckRock about FOIA.gov, how it works and what’s planned for its future. A new tool, dubbed a “FOIA Wizard,” is set for a beta release this fall and is aimed at helping users better see existing FOIA requests and craft new ones.
The following interview has been edited for clarity.
MuckRock: I understand that the discussion for the ‘FOIA Wizard’ has been going on for two years now and there’s a planned completion date for 2027. How has that conversation changed over time, and what’s different now that the gears are in motion?
Bobak “Bobby” Talebian: So as you may know, it’s also included as a commitment in the Open Government Partnership National Action Plan, and we’ve made a lot of progress last year in working towards what we’re calling a ‘FOIA Wizard.’ But really the end goal here is to help requestors get to the agency or the information they’re looking for a lot easier and quicker, which is easier said than done. But we think this is making significant progress towards that.
The idea here is that the tool will be added to a fresh update on FOIA.gov to make the website a little bit cleaner and more straightforward, taking in user feedback. And I want to stress to you — the user feedback. We’ve been using diverse people who are new to FOIA, people who use FOIA and journalists to give a whole bunch of different takes. Our goal is for the tool to have two options for people who want assistance in finding records or which agency they should send their request. Some people might not need it, they already know they need to go to the Department of Justice.
You can go straight to the Justice page and there’s going to be a form there and all the information you need specific to each component of the Department of Justice, like their FOIA regulations, their FOIA libraries and so forth. But for those who might need assistance, there will be a search field where you could put in the description of what you’re looking for or keywords and that will be based off a lot of data that we’ve taken from agencies and agencies websites. It uses a machine learning module to help the requestor go either to the right place to submit the request, or if it’s already on their FOIA library, directly to those pages.
MuckRock: You said that you’ve had some user feedback. How has that been so far?
Talebian: We’re actually doing a lot of user feedback right now, but so far we’ve gotten some good feedback where we’re going to make some changes, and we’ve also gotten some really great reactions. One that comes to mind is somebody that’s been doing user feedback said they were looking for their tax records months ago, and they had a hard time finding it, and this tool made it so much easier. I think there’s going to be a lot of success stories, but we’re going to have to continue to build on it.
MuckRock: Going back to that idea of the backlogs, which occurred with FOIAonline as well, is there a solution to these backlogs and some users’ difficulties in obtaining records from the federal government?
Talebian: I don’t think there’s any one solution to improving the FOIA backlogs and that’s why we work on a number of different fronts to help agencies on their backlog reduction efforts.
Certainly, technology is one of them and one impact we’re hoping the FOIA Wizard has is that people get into the right place and are seeing the information they need before making a request. But obviously, there’s other technologies that help agencies as well, so we work with agencies directly if they have questions and are looking to see what’s the best FOIA case management system.
We’re also working with the General Services Administration as part of our national action plan commitment to establish standard business standards for technology so that agencies are well versed with what the ground level requirements should be for FOIA technology that they need, and what the functionalities and capacitive capabilities that they are looking for. And that they are not starting from step one on their acquiring and procuring a case management system. Of course, resources are going to always be a factor. There are always multiple things that I think contribute to what agencies should consider and we need to do for the challenge of increasing FOIA requests and demand. We’re trying to provide agencies with all the resources that we can to help them.
MuckRock: With all those resources some agencies still are struggling, is there something that your office can do to encourage or push them to meet their compliance requirements?
Talebian: So we do a number of things to encourage compliance with FOIA. One aspect of it is all the resources and guidance that I mentioned, the other aspect of it is accountability through our reporting and our engagement. I would argue that every section of the Agency Chief FOIA Officer Report — there are five sections — relates to backlog reduction. If you have effective systems in place, are doing proactive disclosures, if you have technology, those all contribute to backlog reduction, but a specific section of the report focuses on backlog and timeliness. We ask agencies to report on certain milestones that are critical to that.
So processing times, particularly, for their simple track processing requests. Whether the backlog has increased or decreased, the proportion of their backlog to their overall volume of requests, the status of their oldest requests – we ask them all that to be publicly reported. If they have a significant backlog, [we ask the agency] to explain what their backlog reduction plan is. And then the next year, we ask them the status of implementing that plan. In addition to that, every year, we conduct an assessment based off of the reports and score agencies on the different milestones.
So if, for example, your agency on average processes simple track requests within 20 working days, you get a green. If it goes up to a certain amount, it’s yellow. It could become a red and no one wants a red, then that’s also publicly reported. That’s another way of encouraging accountability, but also encouraging compliance with the FOIA and efforts to make backlog reduction.
MuckRock: So what happens when an agency slips into the yellow or even worse to the red?
Talebian: Well, the one thing is it’s publicly reported, and no one wants to have any of their programs not look like they are being effective. But also, I’ve gotten great feedback from agencies. And also when we talk to CFOs, we will bring up that having those milestones is incredibly effective for the leadership buy in and support within the agency. So the agency sees that it’s important, these are important milestones they want to hit throughout the year, and they can get top down support to meet them. That’s why it makes it more of a priority.
MuckRock: Outside of the public awareness that they’re not meeting their requirements, is there any sort of teeth behind the color marks that would force [federal agencies] to be in compliance?
Talebian: It’s that and then our engagement with the agency based off of those milestones. But of course, every agency is responsible for overseeing their FOIA compliance as well. And, in the statute, each agency has a chief FOIA officer – who is at the assistant secretary level – who is responsible for making sure that there’s efficient and effective compliance with the law. This is the chief FOIA officer report so really there’s that level of accountability.