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D.C. Begins Using New Online Portal for Requesting Public Records

Fritz Mulhauser | June 15, 2024 | Last modified: July 19, 2024

Requests for District of Columbia government records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) must be submitted at a new portal as of June 14, 2024, according to an online notice. The link is https://myfoia.dc.gov.

Public records access is the latest exhibit in the government’s efforts to keep up electronic services as legacy software requires costly repairs, knowledgeable staff retire, and new users expect government to promptly offer the faster and more user-friendly functionality they find elsewhere in their digital lives.  

The prior access portal, called FOIAXpress, was adopted in D.C. a decade ago with fanfare by Mayor Vincent Gray. A product of a Maryland software company called OPEXUS (formerly AINS, LLC), it had been used widely at federal agencies but proved less well suited for other users.

The new portal is GovQA, a product of Granicus, a firm that already provides multiple information technology services to the D.C. government.

The D.C. Open Government Coalition looks forward to the improved user experience that should be expected from new web designs and updated software.

And perhaps advanced AI tools will be part of a truly modern solution to common issues in records requests, such as:

  • for requesters–suggesting, to those mystified by the maze of D.C. agencies, where records may be held, or
  • offering answers to questions about the complex FOIA process; and
  • for agency FOIA staff–identifying personal information to be removed from records before release (called “redaction”) probably the major source of delayed agency response.

The Granicus firm, as a large supplier of government information services of all kinds, has strong incentive to maintain its competitive position by adding AI enhancements to its products as fast as possible (just like Apple, Microsoft, or Google). The full features of GovQA for public and government users are unknown, as well as which features DC has chosen and rejected; the version placed online June 14 may be finished or not.

The new online landing page shows a “public records request archive” function that doesn’t work. A “FOIA Reading Room” offered in FOIAXpress was ignored by agencies and never served to host the agencies’ posting of records frequently requested as the law requires.

Officials have told the Coalition that design consultation leading to choice of GovQA was not extensive, chiefly involving staff in D.C. agencies with big FOIA workloads such as the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). The police logged 2,600 requests last year, perennially the highest volume citywide. GovQA is used to manage records requests elsewhere including New York State, City of Fairfax, VA, and City of Boston.

The Coalition had previously asked for improvement of the portal based on reports from disappointed users and an evaluation by the Office of Open Government. In May 2, 2024, D.C. Council testimony the Coalition again urged that D.C. tech officials slow the portal replacement process to allow consulting FOIA requesters on priority upgrades, and that they seek the best deal by open competition. The June 14 changeover of platforms had not been disclosed even at the hearing that included lengthy testimony about the subject.

But the procurement of the new portal behind closed doors appears consistent with the treatment of D.C. public records access policy generally. That is, there are few occasions where users and public experts can bring up issues and advocate for law reform, adequate resourcing, and administrative efficiencies. That is the concern motivating the Coalition’s call for an information policy and resources commission to take a fresh look in light of the community’s 21st century expectations of effective digital government and electronic services.  

Simple functions, like reaching the right agency holding the records the requester needs, are needlessly hard. Why, after a decade, did the now-shuttered online FOIA portal only allow requests to some agencies (about 60 of 80)? And will the new portal cure that?

The D.C. Council did at least ask the question. Public Works and Operations Committee chair, D.C. Councilmember Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) pressed the point in questions to Acting Chief Technology Officer Steven Miller at the agency’s May 2 budget oversight hearing.

She learned only that whether an agency signs on to be accessed via the FOIA portal “is not within [OCTO] control” — though he offered to provide more detail later.

Under Council pressure, users may hope a new request management system will finally draw full participation by all parts of government.

Miller did promise also to share his agency’s evaluation of the other portal software vendors that were rejected. That’s usually a requirement to justify giving away a big contract without formal comparison of competing offers from the many companies offering modern tech tools to governments. Federal agencies’ FOIA officers in May 2024 held a multi-day fair where vendors demonstrated new technology.

Users of the new site will find it only partly open for business.

  • The portal website says information on all previous requests to June 2024 remains in a database still accessible on the old portal, with the explanation: “Any FOIA requests filed before June 14, 2024 can still be tracked through this portal through June 30, 2024.” How they may be tracked after that date is unclear–for example, whether the entire database holding information on past requests, including access to downloaded records, will remain available, or will migrate to be accessible in the new portal. The old portal is at foiaarchive.dc.gov.
  • Also, agency denials of requests submitted via the old portal can no longer be appealed online. Instead, “If you need to appeal an existing request from this portal, please contact MOLC – Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel at foia.appeals@dc.gov and provide your Request ID.”

The Coalition hopes for the best and will be interested in users’ experience with the new FOIA request portal. Comments on how it’s working are welcome at info@dcogc.org.