On October 2, 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 (EFOIA) with the observation that this law "reforges an important link between the United States Government and the American people." Under the provisions of the amended statute, federal departments and agencies have made much government information available electronically, have worked to reduce their backlogs of pending FOIA requests, and have made use of a new part of the statute that deals with modification of FOIA requests -- all while endeavoring to make their FOIA operations more "user friendly" and to make themselves more accessible to FOIA requesters. A major way in which an agency can accomplish this is through a FOIA negotiation team.
"The FBI Negotiation Team was created in April of 1997," says Loren W. Shaver, who is the Team Leader. "After the passage of the EFOIA with its emphasis on response times for FOIA requests, we started looking for ways of addressing the FBI's backlog problem. We noted that one of the new provisions encouraged agencies to contact requesters in order to negotiate the scope of FOIA requests."
"The Negotiation Team consists of seven highly experienced individuals who concentrate on FOIA requests received by the FBI involving voluminous records," explains Julia E. Eichhorst, one of the original team members. The FBI places incoming FOIA requests in one of three queues depending on the number of pages involved and processes requests in each queue on a "first-in/first-out" basis. "Requests that involve over 2,500 pages are considered voluminous requests and fall in the third, or large, queue."
"FOIA requests that are placed in the third queue generally go to the Negotiation Team first," continues Team Member Charles R. Miller. "When I receive a new FOIA request, I research the request because I need to estimate how many pages of FBI records are responsive to this request. Then I get on the phone and call the requester. I describe the kind of material the requester can expect to receive, explain FBI records systems, explain duplication fees that the FBI would charge for this request, and give an estimate of the length of time it would take the FBI to process the request as written."
"People respond very positively to our telephone calls," says Team Member Janice J. McClain. "Many find it a pleasant experience. We give them our telephone number and ask them to call us back, if necessary. We have even heard of one requester who brags to his friends that he has 'talked to the FBI.' I think it is really important that we build good relationships with people who make FOIA requests. We can help them refine their requests. We ask them to tell us exactly what they want. We can explain the types of records that the FBI maintains. Previously, voluminous requests could be in the backlog for years."
A significant part of the Negotiation Team's responsibilities is to communicate and negotiate with FOIA requesters. "Negotiation is a tool that makes the Bureau more user-friendly," says Team Member Marcia M. Nilsson. "I find it really gratifying to be able to help requesters. Even when you can't negotiate with them, we make a positive contact. There are many different types of requesters -- news reporters, prisoners, subjects of FBI investigation, and historians. We make one-on-one contact. When we telephone, the FBI becomes personalized. It is now a name, a voice, someone who is available to respond to their concerns, explain the operations of the FBI, and the intricacies of its recordkeeping system."
"Working with this team has been a real challenge," says Team Member Sandra A. Bunker. "Originally people didn't think it would work. But it has. Since April of 1997 we have worked on 789 cases. I am proud to say that we have been able to negotiate and eliminate 3,667,000 pages from these requests. We have closed 290 entirely. That is over three million pages that would have to be processed on a line-by-line or even a word-by-word basis. I find that a requester who has all the facts is able to make an informed decision. For example, if a requester modifies the scope of a request so that the number of pages requested makes it fall into the second queue, rather than the third, the requester will most likely receive the documents much sooner than if the request had stayed in the third queue."
"Every time we speak with a requester, our telephone call is followed up by a letter that documents our agreement," continues Team member Gloria Ralph-McKissic. "In this way, we eliminate the possibility that the requester has expectations that are unlikely to be met. This is an exciting job," she concludes. "The existence of this team reflects the new attitude on the part of the Attorney General and the FBI towards the FOIA. In years past, the FOIA was regarded as a law we had to comply with. Today it is considered to be a positive mechanism for openness in government. There is a belief that requests and requesters should be facilitated."
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