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AINS Blog - FOIA and Case Management

Monday
May142012

AINS holds 2012 FOIAXpress Users Group Conference

AINS, Inc., held its 2012 FOIAXpress Users Group Conference in downtown Washington D.C.  FOIAXpress is a software system produced by AINS, Inc. that automates compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Privacy Act. Over 200 government FOIA professionals from over 50 government agencies attended the FOIAXpess conference which went over new features of the latest FOIAXpress software release. 

Under FOIA, government agencies must respond to public requests for information and must release all responsive non-exempted information to the requestor. 

The conference began with remarks from former OIP co director Richard Huff.  Mr. Huff focused on the difficulty and importance of the work FOIA professionals perform.  Mr. Huff argued that statutes and definitions regarding the FOIA and Privacy act are often vague and the expectations placed on FOIA professionals are sometimes unrealistic.  He concluded, however, that regardless of the difficulties, the work of a FOIA professional is a ‘high calling’ that fills an integral role in facilitating transparency in our Government.

The conference also introduced the new FOIAXpress Discovery module which allows FOIA professionals to automate their initial document review process through elimination of duplicate documents and compare similar documents with the near-duplicate document review tool.

Also new to this year’s conference was the FOIA Community Session, which separated attendees into groups according to their agency: DOD, Financial and General. Each group then engaged in lively discussions regarding their unique FOIA management process, sharing ideas for improvement government-wide.

Attendees were encouraged to ask questions and make suggestions on how to improve the FOIAXpress system throughout the presentations.

“Our FOIAXpress User’s Conference is an opportunity for our customers to learn how to best utilize our software, and an opportunity for us to learn how we can continue to make their FOIA processing easier,” said Moe Goswami, CEO of AINS, inc. “The high turnout and enthusiasm of our customers at this conference underscores the government’s strong commitment to transparency.”

Government transparency has been a high priority for the Obama Administration. 

In the past, agencies have struggled to keep up with a high volume of requests.  The Obama administration has encouraged agencies to utilize technology to streamline their FOIA processes. 

For many, electronic FOIA systems like FOIAXpress have been the solution.

FOIAXpress is currently used in over 180 government agencies and offices across the nation.

Friday
Apr202012

Should mobile messages and emails between elected officials be considered “private”?

By: Mallory W.

The Virginia Supreme Court is hearing a case this week about a vote to close down one of Fairfax County’s elementary schools. Parent Jill DeMello Hill has charged that, prior to the open meeting, elected officials who made the decision sent numerous emails which violate the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The Virginia FOIA requires such meetings to be open to the public, and Hill argues that the extensive emails sent between several of the officials constitute private deliberations that should qualify as a secret meeting.

Hill feels that many of the officials went into the meeting knowing how they were going vote, rather than deciding after discussion at the meeting itself. The open meeting should allow citizens to hear the deliberation. In Hill’s opinion, the “open” meeting was just a formality to ensure that the officials were abiding by the law at face value. The main provision of the Virginia FOIA at stake qualifies a secret meeting as any “informal assemblage” of three or more members of an elected body that is not announced and open to the public. One way for officials to circumvent this provision is to “respond to sender” on an email, rather than replying to all. Officials can then forward an entire chain between two members to other officials. The Virginia Supreme Court will decide whether this violates the “informal assemblage” stipulation.

In a brief from Fairfax County Public Schools, lawyers argue that ruling in favor of Hill would “undermine effective government.” The argument here is that the process would become so inefficient that the government itself would cease to function appropriately. The School Board insists that communication between officials outside public meetings is essential to elected officials properly representing their constituents. By banning outside communication, officials would be required to vote before hearing extensive deliberation, which could result in rushed and uninformed decisions.

What do you think? Should elected officials be able to communicate with one another about future decisions and issues outside of open meetings? Would this undermine the efficiency and effectiveness of American government? What is the proper balance of transparency?

Read the full article here

Monday
Apr022012

Thinking critically about the proposed FOIA portal

By: AINS

Recently, there has been a lot of hype surrounding EPA’s proposed FOIA portal, but with little apparent critical analysis of the as-yet-to-be developed solution.   What are the facts? What do we really know?

First of all, the EPA is spending taxpayer dollars to develop software that is already available in the private sector and is widely deployed within the Federal government.  PAL Web Portal, a FOIA web portal by which requesters can submit, track, and receive their FOIA requests online, already exists and is in use at several Federal agencies. Produced by AINS, the PAL Web Portal was developed as a solution to streamline request submission, document delivery and communication between requesters and agencies and provide a public reading room on which agencies can proactively post frequently requested documents.

Secondly, PAL Web Portal integrates with FOIAXpress, the leading electronic FOIA management system in use by over 180 government agencies and offices. PAL Web Portal automatically populates electronic case files with relevant request information—significantly speeding the FOIA process. The EPA portal has not addressed how it will integrate with existing agency systems.

In addition, most departments and agencies already have their own FOIA system in place, whereby, as is often necessary, they deal directly with requesters.  Is it wise to introduce a redundant system that creates an unnecessary middleman between the requester and the responsive agency?  Extraneous steps could burden an already time sensitive process.   Furthermore, lines of authority, accountability and liability among agencies have not been addressed which could lead to interagency confusion and conflict—further slowing the FOIA process. 

Should agencies rely on an unproven system? What do we know about its architecture? The Regulations.gov system, the infrastructure on which the proposed EPA portal is based, was not specifically built to handle FOIA.

Is a government developed system really the answer?  EPA’s development of this proposed portal, despite existing private sector solutions, raises concerns as government software has been proven to be more unstable and error-prone than private sector solutions.

Considering this, the public should take a closer look at the proposed EPA portal’s implications as well as the currently available private sector solutions. Particularly, when existing solutions that provide equivalent functionality can be implemented at a fraction of the estimated cost.

Tuesday
Mar272012

AINS sponsors and exhibits at ASAP 2012

By: Travis J.

AINS sponsored and exhibited at the fifth annual American Society of Access Professionals (ASAP) national training conference last week in New Orleans.  ASAP is a professional and educational society dedicated to advancing awareness of government information issues and educating access professionals on industry best practices.  ASAP membership primarily comprises federal information officers, processors and counsel who administer the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Privacy Act (PA), Executive Orders and other access statues and regulations.  Members also include public interest groups with strong interest in the success of open government laws.

The National Training Conference in New Orleans blended basic and more advanced educational sessions over three days.  Instructor-led classes provided detailed instruction on the practical every day applications of access statutes and records management as well as professional development sessions. Several sessions provided a direct dialogue between public requesters and public request processors, identifying ways to speed and streamline the public request process.

As access professionals, a majority of the conference attendees use AINS products every day to process access requests.  In addition to answering their questions on our FOIAXpress product, we provided attendees with exciting information on our PAL Web Portal.  PAL Web Portal provides a secure method of submitting requests, obtaining request status updates, receiving responsive records and downloading frequently requested records via the electronic reading room.  PAL Web Portal speeds the public request process by auto-populating FOIAXpress with requester information and by facilitating improved communication with the requester.  Attendees also learned about our new FOIA Services division, which provides expert FOIA process consulting and staff augmentation services to help government agencies improve their FOIA process.

We would like to thank all of our FOIAXpress users, as well as those non-users interested in learning more about our products, for stopping by our booth and chatting with us.  We hope we were able to answer all of your questions and helped you to improve your public request practices.  If not, please let us know what we missed at info@ains.com 

 

Tuesday
Mar202012

AINS attends 'Freedom of Information Day' Conference at Newseum

By: Lionel T.

On Friday, March 16th, the American Library Association hosted its annual “Freedom of Information Day” Conference at the Newseum in downtown Washington, DC as part of Sunshine Week. The annual conference is held to celebrate the birth of James Madison, who is regarded as the Father of the Constitution and the foremost advocate for openness in government. 

As a partner to the FOIA community, AINS attended this annual event to learn about the current state of Freedom of Information in the U.S. The conference agenda included a keynote address from former University of Virginia President Robert O’ Neil, as well as a discussion on FOI and international trade negotiations. One of the highlights was the panelist discussion entitled “Whistleblowers & the Press: Roles and risks in divulging information needed for accountable government” with representatives from the SEC, the Pentagon, and the Office of Public Affairs for the Department of justice. The panel discussed some of the controversial relationships between mass media outlets and government agencies. 

In the end, this event offered a platform for FOIA professionals at different levels to discuss, listen, and offer opinions on the state of FOI and government transparency.  Among the many awards for service and accomplishments in the area of Freedom of Information, 22 scholarships were given to students in the 'Free to Tweet' competition.  Winning entries can be seen here.