Reducing Backlogs and Improving Timeliness
As agencies work to improve their administration of the FOIA, one of their most important priorities is improving timeliness in responding to requests and reducing any existing backlogs. As Attorney General Holder stated in his FOIA Guidelines: "Timely disclosure of information is an essential component of transparency. Long delays should not be viewed as an inevitable and insurmountable consequence of high demand."
As a result of the efforts of Chief FOIA Officers and FOIA professionals, agency backlogs at many agencies have decreased. Indeed, in Fiscal Year 2013, the vast majority of agencies – seventy-three out of ninety-nine—reported low backlogs of fewer than 100 requests. Of those agencies, fifty-nine reported a request backlog of below twenty requests, and twenty-five agencies reported no backlog at all. While agencies cannot control the number of incoming requests they receive, many are finding ways to more effectively manage that workload.
Given the importance of reducing backlogs and improving timeliness, OIP selected this topic to be the centerpiece of the first Best Practices Workshops convened by OIP to fulfill one of the Administration's five FOIA modernization commitments detailed in the second National Action Plan.
At this workshop, speakers from five different agencies shared with other FOIA professionals their successes in reducing backlogs and improving timeliness. While each faced different challenges, the approaches taken by the five agencies featured some common themes. Notably, these agencies stressed that success in reducing backlogs and improving timeliness requires a focused plan and continual effort. The following keys to success were discussed at the workshop, and can be implemented by any agency that seeks to improve the quality of its FOIA program.
Obtaining Leadership Support
Agency leadership is critical to achieving any goal. When agency managers make reducing backlogs and improving timeliness a priority, it increases awareness and accountability across the board. Having leadership support also makes it easier for FOIA managers to obtain any additional necessary resources or personnel.
FOIA professionals should meet regularly with leaders in their agencies to update them on progress throughout the year. This regular engagement with agency leaders will help to spread management responsibility for FOIA across the agency and ensure greater accountability. It is also helpful for FOIA professionals to regularly engage any regional or field office personnel whose work impacts FOIA administration. Improving consistency among offices makes managing easier and processing more efficient.
Routinely Reviewing Processing Metrics
Before you can fix a problem, you must understand it. Therefore, it is important for FOIA professionals to both collect and regularly review data regarding backlogs and timeliness. Workshop speaker Michael Marquis of HHS stressed the importance of monitoring data on FOIA activity, employing a commonly-heard refrain: "If it doesn't get measured, it doesn't get done."
Regular review of FOIA data helps agencies understand their specific challenges and needs. All the speakers at the workshop focused on the importance of constantly reviewing FOIA processing data so that the agency can, for example:
Identify spikes in incoming requests and make resource adjustments accordingly,
Spot trends in request topics and manage them together, using "intelligent case management" to achieve overall efficiencies,
Set goals for processing staff and keep them informed and accountable throughout the year, and
Ensure that the ten oldest requests, appeals and consultations are being systematically worked on throughout the year, tackling any roadblocks that arise, allowing sufficient time for them to be closed by year end.
The constant use of a wide variety of metrics allows FOIA offices to stay on top of their incoming requests, make adjustments as needed, and know when to seek out additional resources. Monitoring data is also useful when analyzing systems for inefficiencies and is yet another way to maintain accountability. Monitoring backlogs and alerting offices when backlogs are rising assists those offices in staying on top of the issue. When employees see agency managers are regularly reviewing FOIA processing data that helps cement awareness that FOIA processing efforts are a high priority within the agency.
Using Resources Effectively
Agencies should seek ways to better utilize staff and technology to work smarter, not just harder. One way to more effectively manage staff is to utilize "Intelligent Case Management" to identify common trends in requests and direct similar requests to the same analyst, allowing an analyst to become an "expert" in certain types of requests, thereby promoting efficiency. Agencies should also consider adding or modifying processing tracks to more easily group similar request types and to prevent simple requests from being delayed behind more complex requests.
Staff Training and Engagement
Another crucial element in successfully reducing backlogs and improving timeliness is staff training and engagement. When FOIA personnel are properly trained they can process requests more efficiently, requiring less assistance from supervisors or other personnel. Regular training of FOIA personnel is strongly encouraged and managers should try to identify specific areas where staff can benefit from additional training. Some agencies have issued surveys to their FOIA professionals to research which areas require additional training. Managers and FOIA professionals should also utilize regular training opportunities provided by OIP.
Staff engagement can be improved by converting FOIA professionals to the new Government Information Specialist (GIS) career ladder whenever possible. Some agencies are successfully offering telework arrangements as part of their FOIA program and offering other incentives and support to improve staff engagement. All these efforts help solidify the importance of the agency's FOIA mission.
As agencies face ever-increasing numbers of incoming FOIA requests, the challenges of managing the ensuring workload continue to grow. Those challenges are magnified by lean resources and the many competing priorities agencies face. Nonetheless, as demonstrated at the Best Practices workshop on Reducing FOIA Backlogs and Improving Timeliness, agencies are working hard to achieve success. As discussed at the workshop, reducing backlogs and improving timeliness requires an active, aggressive, and multi-pronged approach. Many agencies have seen improvement by first carefully studying their processing systems and policies and then implementing targeted solutions to gain efficiencies. By addressing the issue at multiple levels, by being creative and vigilant, by measuring data, by training and rewarding employees, all agencies can improve their ability to process requests more promptly and to reduce any existing backlogs.