In the more than twenty-seven years since the Freedom of Information Act was enacted, it has grown in importance and complexity, providing more and more challenges and career maneuverability for those involved in administering the Act at federal departments and agencies. The typical FOIA staff at many federal agencies has grown from one or two technicians to an office which may well have a director, supervisory personnel, FOIA specialists, legal technicians and clerical support staff. Many federal employees start out intending to work in the access law field for a year or two, but then develop such valuable expertise in the field that they devote the balance of their federal careers to FOIA administration.
"I've been working in access law for the last twelve years," says Ross Cirrincione, the newly appointed Director of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts Division at the Department of Health and Human Services. He was selected for this position earlier this year, after having headed the FOIA office at one of the agencies within HHS. "I was the Director of the FOIA Division at the Health Care Finance Administration for over eleven years," he explains.
The FOIA operation at HHS is centralized at each major component level, as it is at many other federal departments and agencies. Ross's office, which has a total staff of seven, develops FOIA policy guidelines and promulgates generic instructions for the department as a whole. This provides a framework broad enough to ensure philosophic consistency while allowing the diverse agencies of HHS to write agency-specific regulations governing their day-to-day implementation of the Act.
The office processes the initial FOIA and Privacy Act requests received by some of the components of HHS -- such as the Office of the Secretary, the Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Administration for Children and Families. In addition, the office makes recommendations on administrative appeals for all HHS agencies. This includes the Social Security Administration, the Health Care Finance Administration, and the Public Health Service -- which in turn includes the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and other smaller agencies and services.
"Last year the department as a whole received more than 140,000 initial requests for information under the FOIA and Privacy Act," Ross observes. "It's hard to explain to someone who's not involved in the FOIA what this actually means. If you look at the legislation, or some legislative proposals, you might get the impression that an agency's records are all housed in one room, but it's not nearly that simple."
The Department of HHS has ten regional offices and its headquarters in Washington, D.C. When a FOIA request is received in one of the regional offices, a staff member who has collateral FOIA duties reviews the request. If the requester asks for information that is routinely disclosed by the agency, the staff member will make that routine release. However, if the information has to be reviewed, or if there is going to be any denial of information, the staff member will instead collect all responsive documents and forward them to headquarters for processing.
"My staff reviews records from our field components and makes the judgment call about what can be released," says Ross. "Here at HHS, we have a presumption that records can and should be released."
After three years in the military, Ross returned to Washington where he taught at a teachers' college. Finding it difficult to support a wife and three children on a teacher's salary, Ross accepted a job as a management intern at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1962. He held various management positions of increasing responsibility at the department and, concurrently, was involved in document review and classification in the military reserves.
In 1982, he had the opportunity to become the director of the FOIA Division at HCFA. At that time, the department centralized its FOIA functions within each of its agencies and services and created HHS's main FOIA office.
Now the head of that HHS FOIA office after so many years, as well as a proud grandfather of two, Ross is also the incoming president of the American Society of Access Professionals.
"The one thing I'd like to mention about this profession," Ross says, "is that OPM should consider creating a job series for FOIA specialists. It's a unique set of skills. You have to understand the documents you're reviewing. You need to have experience in the work or business of your agency. And you must have a very good and up-to-date understanding of the FOIA and its constantly growing case law."
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