FOIA Online Request Portal Needs Overhaul: Coalition Testimony to D.C. Council Tech Oversight Hearing

Ten thousand record requests each year reach D.C. government agencies, invoking the iconic open government law, the D.C. Freedom of Information Act or FOIA. But the journey is needlessly difficult, open government advocates Thursday (29) told the D.C. Council. The "online portal" -- using software called FOIAXpress -- debuted in 2014 and advertised smooth sailing by one-stop submission followed by seamless request tracking, record review and redaction, ending in online delivery.

The reality instead has included

  • access to only some not all D.C. agencies,
  • online forms that without warning time out and destroy incomplete work,
  • functions that don't deliver (status messages stuck for months on "in progress" as deadlines are long past, a reading room for easy access to past requests with no records on file),
  • site pages unreadable and forms unfillable on mobile, and
  • a "help" tab offering only computer gibberish and no real help.

Yet "there’s no online feedback system like so many sites use, and we know of only one in-person meeting in four years where users were asked to give feedback and help make the system better," said Coalition witness Fritz Mulhauser.

The Coalition concluded D.C. officials had simply ignored the user experience--the cardinal sin in 21st century tech design--and even ignored their own internal agency staff who report they bypass unworkable parts of the system.

The Coalition asked the Council's Government Operations Committee to direct the Office of the Chief Technology Officer to conduct a full review of the system before any further contract extensions, especially to seek user input so long ignored.

The mayor's January 2019 nominee to head the agency, Lindsey Parker (now acting chief), spoke afterwards offering to meet soon to review the Coalition's concerns and discuss plans for improvement.

After that exchange, Coalition witness Mulhauser said, "We're looking forward to meeting with career technical officials we've worked with in the past on other topics such as open data, as well as new executive leadership at OCTO, to improve FOIA access for 10,000 requesters a year. For us the hearing was a useful step forward."

Hearing video is here; Coalition testimony is at 48:39.  The Coalition written statement is available at the link below.