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Best Practices Workshop Discusses FOIA Customer Service

In February, OIP held its last scheduled Best Practices Workshop in this new series of training.  The Best Practices Workshop series, designed as a part of the United States’ Second Open Government National Action Plan commitment to further modernize FOIA, aims to leverage effective strategies from across the government by highlighting and sharing successes achieved by agencies on a wide range of FOIA issues. OIP is currently in the process of developing its new schedule of workshops for 2015 and we invite both agencies and the public to give us suggestions for new topics. 

The February workshop featured an expert panel discussion on FOIA customer service and dispute resolution.  President Obama’s FOIA Memorandum and Attorney General Holder’s FOIA Guidelines direct agencies to work with requesters in a “spirit of cooperation,” and many agencies have implemented a range of good customer service practices as part of their FOIA administration.

The panelists for this Workshop included:  Carmen Mallon, Chief of Staff for the Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice; Dennis Argall, Assistant Section Chief for the Record Information Dissemination Section at the Federal Bureau of Investigation; Paul Jacobsmeyer, Chief of the Freedom of Information Act Division of Washington Headquarters Services at the Department of Defense; and Carrie McGuire, Mediation Team Lead for the Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Each panelist discussed best practices they have used and seen to promote good customer service.  Much of the discussion reemphasized the importance of several of the best practices highlighted in the October Workshop, which featured panelists from the requester community.  Some notable examples of the best practices discussed include:

  • 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.

A list of all the best practices discussed during this series and related OIP guidance can be found on the Best Practices Workshop Series page of OIP's website. 

The Best Practices Workshop series will continue and OIP is currently developing the topics for the next slate of events in this series.  We invite you to suggest discussion topics for these upcoming events, and you can e-mail your suggestions for new workshop topics to using the subject line "Agency Best Practices Workshop Suggestion." 

Updated April 13, 2015