Best Practices Workshop Series

OIP launched the Best Practices Workshop Series in the spring of 2014 as a part of the Second Open Government National Action Plan's commitment to modernizing FOIA and improving internal agency FOIA processes. Each workshop focuses on a specific FOIA topic, with a panel of representatives sharing experiences, lessons, and strategies for success in these areas. Through these workshops, agencies can continue to learn from one another and leverage the successes of their own organizations for the overall benefit of FOIA administration across the government.

Best practices highlighted at past events, as well as additional resources regarding the event and topic, are available below.

Future dates and topics:

Collaborating for Results: Agencies and Requesters Working Together Throughout the FOIA Process

June 15, 2017, 10:00 am to 12 noon

 

Best Practices for Self-Assessments and Improving FOIA Processes
August 23, 2017, 10:00 am to 12 noon

Reducing Backlogs & Improving Timeliness - May 20, 2014

 Event Recap - Best Practices Workshop Held Today

Stars

  Name Organization
Event Panelists Michael Marquis Department of Health and Human Services
  Thomas Cioppa U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services
  Richard Frank Department of Defense
  Lisa Babcock Small Business Administration
  Cindy Cafaro Department of the Interior

Best Practices

  • Obtaining leadership support – Agency managers can increase awareness and accountability by making it a priority for their agency to reduce backlogs and improve timeliness.  Having this level of support from leadership makes it easier for FOIA managers to obtain any additional resources or personnel that might be necessary.  Getting buy-in from agency program offices is also key.  In this respect, FOIA professionals can regularly meet with leaders in their agencies to update them on their agency's FOIA administration.  These regular engagements with agency leaders can help spread management responsibilities for FOIA and improve consistency. 
  • Routinely reviewing processing metrics – Before you can fix a problem, you must understand it. Regular review of FOIA data helps agencies understand their specific challenges and needs by allowing them to identify system inefficiencies and FOIA trends such as spikes in incoming requests or an influx of requests on particular topics. This information will in turn allow the agency to better utilize “Intelligent Case Management” strategies aimed at achieving overall efficiencies.  Such routine reviews will also help put agencies in a good position to ensure that their ten oldest requests, appeals, and consultations are worked on throughout the year and that they are on course to be closed by the end of the fiscal year.
  • Ensuring accountability – Setting goals for processing staff and maintaining accountability is also key for any agency's effort to reduce backlogs and improve timeliness.  Motivating staff and rewarding personnel for achieving certain metrics can be particularly helpful towards an agency's efforts in this area. 
  • Engaging with FOIA staff – Staff training and engagement is another key element to success in reducing backlogs and improving timeliness.  When FOIA professionals are properly trained they can process requests more efficiently.  Regular training can be extremely helpful but it is also important to target that training to the needs of the agency's staff.  Agencies can target their FOIA training efforts by, for example, surveying their FOIA professionals on the types of training that would be helpful.  Encouragement and proper support of FOIA staff is also very important.  Some agencies are successfully utilizing telework arrangements as part of their FOIA program as well as offering incentives and other types of support to improve staff engagement.
  • Utilizing multi-track processing – Multi-track processing can be a particularly useful tool for agencies to ensure good workflow in their FOIA processing.  By utilizing multi-track processing agencies can help ensure that requests are placed in the right track so that simple requests do not get stuck behind far more complicated ones.  Some agencies have gone beyond just the traditional three tracks (simple, complex, and expedited) and have created new tracks that improve the flow of their processing efforts.  The use of multi-track processing can also be useful when discussing the scope of a request with the requester.  In certain cases, the requester may be interested in narrowing the scope of a request to fit in a quicker track, which is a win for both the agency and the requester.  
  • Timely focus on 10 oldest requests – The 10 oldest pending requests at an agency are most often also some of the agency's most complex to process.  Agencies can avoid allowing these requests to cause logjams that will impede efforts to reduce backlog by focusing on them in the first quarter of the fiscal year.

Additional Resources

Proactive Disclosures & Making Online Information More Useful – July 17, 2014

 Event Recap - Discussing Proactive Disclosures and Online Information

Scales

  Name Organization
Event Panelists Vanessa Brinkmann Department of Justice
  Erie Meyer Office of Science & Technology Policy
  Karen Finnegan Department of State
  Martin Michalosky Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
  Mark Graff Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Best Practices

  • Engaging with programmatic offices – By actively engaging with record creators at an agency, FOIA offices can identify potential proactive disclosures with more ease, and can work with those offices to make the posting of the material more efficient.
  • Making online information usable, not just accessible – In addition to making more information available online, agencies can further foster transparency by making online information more usable by, for example, posting material in open formats, creating topical websites, or offering more advanced search features.
  • Utilizing available expertise outside of the FOIA office – Just as engaging with programmatic offices can help FOIA professionals locate potential proactive disclosures, leveraging available expertise from inside an agency (such as a Chief Information Officer) or from across the government (such Project Open Data or the 18F innovation lab) can help agencies unlock proactive disclosures that may be waiting at their agency.
  • Collaborating with stakeholders outside of agencies – Working with the public and interested agency stakeholders can allow FOIA offices to focus their efforts on particular types of proactive disclosures or identify useful formats for posting that information.

Additional Resources

Best Practices from the Requester’s Perspective – October 28, 2014

Event Recap - Best Practices Panel Highlights Importance of Customer Service and Good Communication

Flame

  Name Organization
Event Panelists Amy Bennett OpenTheGovernment.org
  Josh Gerstein Politico
  Elizabeth Hempowicz Project on Government Oversight
     
     

Best Practices

  • Maintaining frequent and substantive communications with requesters – Providing requesters with an available point of contact who can discuss the status and processing of requests, including items such as how a search is being conducted, the scope of the request, response times, and any fee issues or other procedural requirements.  Agency points of contacts can also proactively reach out to requesters to efficiently and effectively work through any potential processing issues.  By empowering the requester with up-to-date information regarding their request they will be able to more effectively work with the agency for their mutual benefit.  
  • Explaining the type of records agencies maintain –  Explaining to requesters the types of information an agency maintains can help them to make better, more tailored requests which will benefit both the requester and the agency.  This type of communication also provides an opportunity to discuss with requesters the scope of their request and to help make sure that search and processing efforts are not being expended for records that may not actually be of interest to the requester. 
  • Maintaining up-to-date contact information – Ensuring that requesters are informed when the point of contact for their request changes, as well as making sure that contact information located online is updated. 
  • Make records posted online findable and accessible – Posting records online in obvious subject matter locations where potential requesters are most likely to look for them.  By doing so and also posting records in formats that are most accessible, the public can more efficiently locate records already available online so that there is no need for a request to be made in the first place. 

Additional Resources

Implementing Technology to Improve FOIA Processing – December 9, 2014

Event Recap - Discussing Using Technology to Improve FOIA Processes at Best Practices Panel

Eagle

  Name Organization
Event Panelists Douglas Hibbard Department of Justice
  Michael Norman Department of Homeland Security
  Joan Fina Commodity Futures Trading Commission
     
     

Best Practices

  • Leveraging all available agency resources Technology tools may have various uses and even those not specifically designed for FOIA can help create efficiencies in the FOIA process. By leveraging tools already available at an agency, FOIA professionals can potentially implement, and realize the benefits of, new technologies faster than if looking outside the agency.
  • Actively collaborating with technology professionals – Collaborating and working with an agency’s technology professionals can help identify available tools that can be leveraged for an agency's FOIA office.  Such collaborations can also help set clear expectations for what is needed in technology tools as well as help both FOIA and technology professionals understand their role in the process of using and supporting the use of such tools. These collaborations do not necessarily have to be confined to within an agency, as professionals from across the government may be able to offer additional best practices, tools, or other assistance when seeking to implement new technologies for FOIA administration.
  • Examining different uses of technology for benefits throughout the entire FOIA process – While many agencies have focused on finding tools that help with the searchability and processing of responsive documents, there are a number of other tools or uses of technology that can also be very helpful for an agencies' FOIA administration. For example, within agencies the use of improved networks and online platforms to move responsive records between offices, to collaborate on FOIA processing, to facilitate teleworking and to track workflow metrics can all be useful for finding efficiencies.  Electronic communication with requesters, including the sending of responsive records in electronic formats, should be the default for agencies:  Not only is this more customer friendly, but it is a much more efficient method of communication for both agencies and requesters.
  • Continually evaluating the effectiveness of tools – Flexible approaches to technology implementation are needed, as not every tool will work for every agency and existing tools may no longer be effective. By regularly evaluating tools, agencies can assess their effectiveness, identify best practices for their use, and work to identify opportunities for the incorporation of new tools.
  • Utilize advanced document review tools – The use of advanced document review software can create efficiencies in agencies' administration of the FOIA by effectively conducting searches, automatically de-duplicating, and streamlining the review of responsive records, thereby reducing time spent on these tasks by FOIA professionals.

Additional Resources

Customer Service and Dispute Resolution - February 18, 2015

Event Recap - Best Practices Workshop Discusses FOIA Customer Service

Shield

  Name Organization
Event Panelists Carmen L. Mallon Department of Justice
  Dennis Argall Federal Bureau of Investigation
  Paul Jacobsmeyer Department of Defense
  Carrie McGuire National Archives & Records Administration
     

Best Practices

  • Communicating with the requesters throughout the life of a request – Maintaining open communication with requesters is critical for providing good customer service. This can include promptly acknowledging receipt of a request, explaining the FOIA process to requesters who are unfamiliar with it, and ensuring that requesters can easily contact the agency to ask questions and inquire about the status of their requests.  Open communication also includes a range of actions, such as providing a sample of records responsive to a request to help the requester understand the type of material the agency has located and utilizing interim responses whenever possible to provide material on a rolling basis.     
  • Proactively communicating with requesters – Several panelists found success in proactive efforts to communicate with requesters.  For example, reaching out to requesters who have (sometimes unknowingly) made broad or complex requests can help clarify questions the agency has while at the same time provide  requesters the opportunity to reformulate their requests so that records can be more readily located and processed more efficiently.  Proactive outreach to provide the status of a request can also be beneficial, particularly for requests that have been pending for any significant length of time.  By actively communicating with requesters in such situations, the agency not only is providing good customer service, but the communication itself can lead to further discussions about ways to help  requesters obtain  responsive records as efficiently as possible.
  • Memorializing discussions with the requester – Agencies should make it as easy as possible for requesters to clarify or reformulate their requests.  Documenting discussions with requesters, especially when the requester agrees to amend his or her request, is critical to ensure that the agency and the requester mutually understand what was discussed.  Agencies should promptly follow-up substantive phone discussions with an e-mail or letter that summarizes what was discussed and that includes contact information in case the requester has additional questions or concerns.
  • Using Multi-track processing to improve customer service – Multi-track processing can help agencies provide good customer service in two ways.  Utilization of a multi-track system provides a mechanism for the agency to process "simple" requests in a different queue from "complex" requests, which in turn can allow for improved timeliness for the "simple" track requests.  Additionally, by establishing multiple processing tracks, agencies can more readily offer requesters the option of tailoring their request so that it fits within the "simple" track and can be processed more quickly.

Additional Resources

Best Practices for Small Agencies - August 26, 2015

Event Recap - Best Practices Workshops Continue with Discussions on Small Agencies and Backlog Reduction

Stars

  Name Organization
Event Panelists Jennifer Matis Office of Government Ethics
  Linda Hale Federal Maritime Commission
  Jeffrey Pienta Farm Credit Administration
  Carmen Banerjee Department of Justice
     

Best Practices

  • Collaborating with agency personnel, including non-FOIA personnel – As the Department of Justice has declared, "FOIA is everyone's responsibility," and collaboration among agency personnel can be the key to success, particularly at a small agency.  The unique expertise of an agency's personnel in their programmatic areas, particularly with technology, can often be helpful in overcoming the challenges of implementing the FOIA.  Given the more "close-knit" nature of some smaller agencies, they are sometimes better able to foster this important level of collaboration, which can be key to their success in administering the FOIA.  Working with agency personnel outside of those with specific FOIA duties can help improve many aspects of an agency’s FOIA administration, including increased proactive disclosures of information and the efficient processing of requests.
  • Using multi-track processing – Multi-track processing can help agencies respond to requesters more quickly.  Use of a multi-track system provides a mechanism for the agency to process "simple" requests in a different queue from "complex" requests, which in turn helps achieve increased productivity in the processing of requests overall.  Additionally, the establishment of multiple processing tracks allows agencies to offer requesters the option of tailoring their request so that it fits within the "simple" track that can be processed more quickly.
  • Communicating with requesters – As mentioned in other Best Practices discussions, and emphasized by OIP, good communication with requesters is key to any successful FOIA operation.  Small agencies are sometimes better positioned to take advantage of more personalized communications with their requesters and this can be a very valuable technique.    Building a strong rapport with requesters helps ensure that they fully understand the FOIA process and that they are confident that the agency is working to locate and process their records as expediently as possible. 
  • Conducting internal reviews of FOIA practices and procedures – Regular internal reviews of an agency's FOIA operations can be very helpful particularly as small agencies continue to face competing priorities for their resources.  These internal reviews also enable small agencies to find ways to further improve their FOIA processes in order to reduce processing times, improve communication with requesters, and increase the number of requests processed.
  • Utilizing a FOIA tracking system or database – Having the right FOIA tracking system or database can be very helpful for an agency's management of its FOIA responsibilities.  Depending on the volume of requests received and processing needs, agencies should utilize the technology or system that best allows them to manage their FOIA processing needs and satisfy their reporting obligations.   A tracking system or database can also improve administrative efficiencies by automating certain aspects of FOIA intake and helping the agency proactively track important ticklers such as the number of days a request has been in the queue and significant deadlines.

Additional Resources

Reducing Backlogs and Improving Timeliness - December 8, 2015

Event Recap - Best Practices Workshops Continue with Discussions on Small Agencies and Backlog Reduction

Justice

  Name Organization
Event Panelists Sean O'Neill Department of Justice
  Chris Morris Department of Energy
  Sabrina Burroughs Department of Homeland Security
  Catrina Pavlik Keenan Department of Homeland Security
     

Best Practices

  • Leveraging technology – Using advanced tools like e-Discovery applications can often enable agencies to conduct searches and review responsive records in a fraction of the time it would have taken without such technology.  Acquiring these tools is only half the battle though; there are a number of best practices that must be learned to fully utilize these tools when agencies do have them.  Using a good case management system with sophisticated report generating capabilities can also be key to an agency's success.  Some case management systems offer functionality that automates FOIA intake and correspondence procedures and provides redaction tools.  Such new functionality could also be of help to agencies working to reduce backlogs. 
  • Utilizing Active case management techniques – While employing efficient processing tools can be a significant factor in helping an agency's backlog reduction efforts, reducing backlogs also requires active management of an agency’s FOIA workload.  Agencies that succeed in reducing their backlogs often rely heavily on FOIA managers who take an ongoing, proactive, role in managing their FOIA workloads.  By regularly reviewing FOIA data, including monitoring incoming requests and establishing metrics and goals to keep pace, agencies can better understand their specific challenges and needs and take steps to address them.  Active case management allows agencies to identify system inefficiencies and FOIA trends such as spikes in incoming requests or an influx of requests on particular topics.   Regular meetings with staff to review case logs can also be very helpful. 
  • Getting employee buy-in and developing quality staff – At the core of any agency’s success in FOIA administration will always be the buy-in and quality of its FOIA professionals who are on the front lines doing the hard work of processing often voluminous and complicated records on a wide variety of topics.  To achieve higher productivity and gain efficiencies FOIA managers should be heavily involved in the day-to-day work of these employees, setting appropriate goals and recognizing employee contributions.    Getting buy-in from FOIA professionals as to the important work that they are doing for the mission of their agency can be crucial in setting the right tone for achieving backlog reduction and improving timeliness overall.  A clear vision and mission statement facilitated by employee engagement can be very helpful in this regard.  FOIA managers should also ensure that their FOIA staffs have adequate resources and training available to them to be able to fulfill their jobs appropriately and efficiently.    
  • Building relationships amongst program offices – As the Department of Justice has declared, "FOIA is everyone's responsibility."  Fostering relationships between FOIA staff and other programmatic office staff within an agency can help prioritize FOIA and improve overall timeliness.  This can also lead to collaborations between offices on how efficiencies can be gained when searching for records, identifying proactive disclosures, or better utilizing technology.

Additional Resources

Best Practices from the Requester’s Perspective – April 25, 2016

Event Recap - Wrapping up the Fiscal Year with Recaps from Workshops on Best Practices from the Requester’s Perspective and Best Practices for FOIA Training Programs

Flame

  Name Organization
Event Panelists Tom Sussman American Bar Association
  Sean Moulton Project on Government Oversight
     
     
     

Best Practices

  • Regularly communicating with requesters and working with them throughout the process – The most important tool for a FOIA analyst can often be the telephone. Taking the time to discuss with requesters aspects of their requests such as search, scope, the estimated date of completion, or any fees that are at issue can provide them with a better understanding of the process. By keeping the lines of communication open agencies can establish trust with the requester. Additionally, by providing updates to the requester and regularly communicating, the agency can often alleviate concerns requesters might have with the handling of their request. This type of communication can also be mutually beneficial as agencies and requesters can work together to find the most efficient and effective way of getting the requester the records he or she seeks.
  • Making contact early on with requesters to discuss procedural issues – Explaining the process to requesters at the onset of the request can often serve as a springboard for fruitful discussions on, for example, the scope of the records sought. Topics that may benefit from early discussions include the scope of the request, the need for consultations or submitter-notice, or any fee issues. In having these discussions, agencies can present requesters with options moving forward which can often lead to faster processing. 
  • Using technology to improve how requests are made – Having a strong FOIA web presence and electronic means by which to receive requests are important resources for the requester community. Agencies can actively collaborate with their information technology personnel to strengthen their websites and explore different means for facilitating the electronic submission of requests, such as through e-mail or a portal. 
  • Training and educating agency personnel to facilitate communications with requesters – Understanding your agency's organization and the records it maintains can be just as important as knowing the requirements of the FOIA. This level of understanding can be very helpful when explaining the process to requesters. Accordingly, FOIA professionals should ensure they have a good understanding of their agency's records in order to communicate effectively with requesters about the handling of their requests. 

Additional Resources

FOIA Training Programs - May 25, 2016

Event Recap - Wrapping up the Fiscal Year with Recaps from Workshops on Best Practices from the Requester’s Perspective and Best Practices for FOIA Training Programs

Eagle

  Name Organization
Event Panelists Bobak Talebian Department of Justice
  James Hogan Department of Defense
  Alexis Graves Department of Agriculture
     
     

Best Practices

  • Reinforcing the message that FOIA is everyone's responsibility – While substantive training for agency FOIA professionals is key to the success of any FOIA program, it is critical that agencies are mindful of the maxim that “FOIA is everyone's responsibility.” As a result, agencies should be sure to provide training to any agency personnel who are relied upon by FOIA professionals to support the work of the FOIA program. Agencies should ensure that both senior executives and records custodians in the program offices have a proper understanding of their unique roles and responsibilities in implementing this important law.
  • Being creative and thinking outside the box when it comes to how you provide training – Keeping training fun and interesting through new formats can help ensure that your employees are not only engaged, but that they are also retaining the material. Different training formats such as online training modules, an "Ask a FOIA Officer" column, hands-on workshops, or even a regular FOIA comic strip can all enhance an agency's existing FOIA training program. Also, agencies should look to make every moment a training opportunity. Training does not have to be limited to the traditional settings and can be provided through newsletters, short FOIA briefings, video-teleconferences, and even as part of regularly held staff meetings.
  • Tailoring your FOIA training for the specific needs of your personnel – Evaluate your FOIA program to determine what aspects of the law should be focused on and what would benefit your personnel the most. Ask your staff for suggestions as well. Agency personnel can be in the best position to inform their agency of the type and form of training they most need and so open lines of communication can be key to designing an effective training program.
  • Rewarding and incentivizing FOIA training – Understanding the requirements of the FOIA is fundamental to any successful FOIA program. Accordingly, it is very important that agencies not only ensure there are robust training resources available to their personnel, but that personnel are also taking advantage of these resources. Agencies should explore different ways for incentivizing FOIA training to ensure that personnel have a sound understanding of their obligations under the law.

Additional Resources

Updated May 1, 2017