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Improving the Process of Administering FOIA
Posted On February 14, 2017
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The Efficiency and Resources Subcommittee Report

The Efficiency and Resources Subcommittee’s goal is to provide recommendations for the best and most efficient use of resources when managing FOIA requests. Subcommittee members are concentrating on the various elements that make an agency successful; for example, the remediation of FOIA backlogs. It is exploring what success looks like when it comes to FOIA administration and the ways in which agencies (and the public) can recognize success with respect to FOIA compliance. Equally important is identifying elements contributing to a lack of success—particularly challenges common to multiple agencies.

The subcommittee intends to use a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods, including annual reports, privacy officer reports, and OGIS review reports. It will consider variables such as complexity of requests, allocated budget, and technology available within agencies and issue a final report identifying “what we believe to be the North Star agencies.”

The second guest speaker for the day was Michael Marquis, director of HHS’ FOIA division. His approach is to envision what the finished FOIA puzzle should look like in terms of accountability, leadership support, strategic focus, and sense of urgency.

Marquis always begins by examining workflow processes and identifying opportunities for improvement. His advice to other FOIA chiefs is, “Share your vision of your finished puzzle, how your FOIA program should function, work with your staff … to continuously implement improvements. … Finally, celebrate accomplishments. Reinforce those improvements,” and don’t be afraid to “[b]low it up.”

Marquis views the public as his office’s boss. In all cases, he begins with a strategic plan for FOIA, emphasizing accessibility and efficiency and a culture of accountability throughout the lifecycle of a FOIA request. He advises FOIA specialists to work with customers to identify priorities within complicated FOIA requests, as well as key search terms and specific time frames that may not have been mentioned in the initial request. He believes that the public should know what’s pending and that agency leadership needs to know what is burdensome. The goal at HHS is to get FOIA requests sent out for search within 24 hours of receipt and completed within 20 days or fewer. In 2015, average processing time for simple requests was 15 days.

HHS appears to have followed President Barack Obama’s instructions that agencies reduce FOIA backlogs by 10% every year. In part, this may be due to the employment of intelligent case management with an intake team whose purpose is to keep cases from going to process teams (which focus on complex cases).

Marquis recommends making processes efficient before requesting additional resources, training staffers, and being sure that staffers understand the performance measures being used. Asked what tops his wish list, Marquis said that an enterprise-wide tracking system of FOIA requests—as opposed to the decentralized division-specific system now in place at his and other agencies—would expedite processing of requests that may require communication across divisions.

The Searches Subcommittee Report

The reason other agencies may not be making as much progress in reducing the FOIA bottleneck may be due as much to inefficient search techniques as to competing priorities within agencies for resources, including staff time, budget, and technology. The Searches Subcommitteeis tasked with finding out what’s happening with FOIA requests beyond “out to search.” Ideas include providing greater detail on the FOIA portal, such as the name and contact information for the individual working on each request. The subcommittee is also discussing how to make FOIA everyone’s responsibility (as part of their performance reviews) and how agencies might use e-discovery tools to fulfill FOIA requests.

Expanding FOIA officers’ capabilities to search e-records would make the process more efficient, as they would no longer have to rely on individuals who, for example, may not be as proficient at searching their own email, or have to wait in the queue for IT to be able to execute the search. Finally, the subcommittee hopes to conduct a benchmark survey for FOIA search across all federal agencies and “issue a set of best practices that if you want to have a gold star agency, this is how you should be doing your searches.”

Upcoming Events

The next FOIA Advisory Committee meeting is set for April 20. The speaker will be someone who has used e-discovery tools for FOIA requests. On March 13, NARA will celebrate Sunshine Week by highlighting the ways that innovators inside and outside the government are making it possible for people to engage with government and add value to the nation’s records. The agenda and confirmed participants will be announced shortly on the OGIS events page.

A transcript of the Jan. 26 meeting is available as a PDF. The session was streamed live, and the video should be available shortly on NARA’s YouTube channel.

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Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser

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