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FOIA Audit: Entrepreneurial Spirit

May 12, 2011

Earlier this week, we witnessed one of the more unique and unexpected reactions to the 2011 Knight Open Government Survey.

On Wednesday, PRWeb reported that the information technology consulting firm, Eskel Porter Consulting, is offering a cloud-based FOIA management software solution, Public Records Tracker.  The FOIA Audit is not only mentioned in the article, but the vice president of Eskel Porter Consulting, John Schloemann, is quoted: “While the Knight Report is certainly a wake up call for federal government, it also represents an opportunity for agencies to make compliance a priority that is easily achievable.”

The marketing for Public Records Tracker claims that the product is less risky than current database systems, can automatically update to meet updated FOIA requirements, and has been approved by the General Services Administration for use by federal agencies.  Schloemann superfluously claims that the affordability of  Public Records Tracker is a major selling point “at a time when tax revenues are falling at the same time public information requests are on the rise.” As revealed in the Knight Survey, the government reporting on the number of public information requests are highly inconsistent.  Additionally, the growth in the cost of administering FOIA has remained relatively stable over the past decade. Most importantly, this program claims to allow agencies to meet all current FOIA requirements.

However, shortcomings that Public Records Tracker address comprise only a fraction of the problems highlighted in the 2011 Knight Open Government Survey.  Software like the Public Records Tracker might make spotting problems in the FOIA process at a federal agency easier, but responsibility for fixing problems lie with policy makers and policy executors.   Indeed, the mere existence of the Open Government Survey demonstrates that spotting shortcomings is not the problem.  Fixing problems of responsiveness, reducing backlogs and improving release and denial decisions are solved with sound policy and competent application of policy.

Since the publication of the Open Government Survey, some agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, have taken steps to address their shortcomings.  Improving responsiveness, as measured by the “Implementation of Obama Freedom of Information Act Policy and Procedure” section of the Knight Survey, is accomplished through achieving a basic level of competency at the interface between agency records and the public, the FOIA office.  Making progress on improving backlogs and release-denial decisions requires additional work and policy improvement at FOIA offices.

Public Records Tracker certainly fits within the continuum of solutions to improve transparency, responsiveness and compliance, but it is by no mean a “silver bullet.” The entrepreneurial endeavors of Eskel Porter Consulting are certainly welcome, but federal agencies must recognize that problems in compliance cannot be fixed with the wave of a wand or credit card.

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