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Best Practices Panel Highlights Importance of Customer Service and Good Communication

OIP Dir. Melanie Ann Pustay with Amy Bennet, Josh Gerstein, and Elizabeth Hempowicz
Director Melanie Ann Pustay with Panelists Amy Bennett, Josh Gerstein, and Elizabeth Hempowicz

Last week, OIP’s ongoing series of Best Practices Workshops continued with a panel discussion on best practices from the perspective of the FOIA requester. Designed as a part of the United States' Second Open Government National Action Plan commitment to  further modernize FOIA, the best practices workshop series highlights agency achievements on a wide range of FOIA issues in order to share and leverage successful strategies across the government.

President Obama and Attorney General Holder have both emphasized the importance of good customer service in FOIA by calling on agencies to work with requesters “in a spirit of cooperation.” As reported every year in agency Chief FOIA Officer Reports, since the issuance of the President's and Attorney General's 2009 FOIA Memoranda the government overall has taken a number of steps focused on enhancing customer service in the administration of the FOIA.  One of the best ways to hear about these successes and to learn how we can further improve is by listening to the FOIA requester community that we serve. 

Last week's panel which was comprised of representatives from civil society and the media provided agency attendees with the opportunity to do just that. Serving on the panel at this event were Amy Bennett from, Elizabeth Hempowicz from the Project on Government Oversight, and Josh Gerstein from Politico. Each detailed the steps and best practices they have seen or would like to see from agencies in their administration of the FOIA.

Though a number of examples were mentioned by the panel, a common theme throughout the workshop was the importance of frequent, substantive, and effective communications by agencies when working through the processing of FOIA requests. The panel highlighted that the ability to discuss details about their request with the agency, such as the scope of the request, the timing of the agency's response, fee issues, or procedural requirements, makes it easier for them to understand the overall process and to work with the agency to identify efficiencies in processing the request.

Since 2010 OIP has issued a number of guidance articles on the importance of good communication and working with requesters in a spirit of cooperation, all of which are available on our guidance page. Many of the examples highlighted by the panel are discussed in these guidance articles, such as the proper procedures for making referrals to other government entities and ensuring that requesters have access to an agency phone number or contact to discuss the status and processing of requests. Agencies should be sure to familiarize themselves with the guidance to ensure they are effectively and efficiently communicating with requesters.

The Best Practices Workshop series will continue on December 9, when a panel of agency personnel will highlight their experiences in implementing technology tools and solutions in order to improve FOIA processing. If you are interested in attending this event, you can register by e-mailing your name and phone number to OIP’s Training Officer at with the subject line “December Best Practices Workshop.” If you have any questions regarding the series, please contact OIP’s Training Officer at (202) 514-3642.

Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for more information about these events and about other training opportunities offered by OIP.

Updated November 10, 2014