Enacted in 1966, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) supports the public’s right to obtain information from federal government agencies. The law establishes procedures and responsibilities for handling information requests, as well as conditions that allow agencies to claim FOIA exemptions. Naturally, disputes arise between the public and agencies over access to information. The OPEN Government Act of 2007 created the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to mediate those disputes and review agency policies and compliance with FOIA requirements throughout the federal government. Since its launch in September 2009, OGIS has fielded more than 750 cases involving a wide variety of agencies and issues.
OGIS was relying on paper files and various Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and Access databases without integration or continuity and was encumbered by manual processes to store, manage, and track cases. The agency’s public website, information on case status, case details, and the agency knowledge base were all segregated. The lack of automation made it impossible to offer self-service options, manage cases efficiently, and provide the agency with needed reporting. Faced with limited resources and a growing workload of complex cases, OGIS established requirements for a next-generation “OGIS Access System” that would:
The need to fairly resolve sometimes contentious disputes in a timely manner placed a premium on the system’s ability to accurately capture and track all case details and to efficiently and easily configure work flows according to FOIA‑compliant procedures. Tightly integrating those functions with internal and public information platforms and a user-friendly knowledge management engine created an extraordinarily high “degree of difficulty” set of requirements.
In a competitive procurement, the agency selected the Active Network’s Citizen Access Suite™ as its OGIS Access System. With modules for case management, knowledge management, and web content management, Active’s solution provided the framework needed to support all of the agency’s functions in a tightly integrated package. Fully exploiting the system’s configurability and expansive functionality, Active was able to deliver a system that precisely fit OGIS’s policies and practices with:
The OGIS Access System received rave reviews from participants at the ASAP Symposium and Training Conference (accesspro.org) where it was described as a model for open government that other agencies would do well to copy. OGIS was seen as providing a very valuable service to both sides in disputes as this service has never existed before. Attendees learned how efficiently automating internal processes and establishing an effective self-service channel to facilitate FOIA appeals can reduce the tensions and even lawsuits that can arise when requests are delayed or not serviced properly. This can reduce trial and litigation costs while increasing trust in government processes, encouraging all sides to view OGIS as a fair, efficient, and effective arbiter.