Today OIP held the first of what will be an ongoing series of Best Practices Workshops designed to showcase successes achieved by agencies in FOIA administration. OIP committed to conducting this workshop series as part of our efforts in fulfilling the Administration’s commitments to the Open Government Partnership, as detailed in the second National Action Plan. The goal of the Best Practices Workshops is to improve FOIA processes across the government by sharing successful strategies and approaches to a wide range of FOIA issues. The workshops provide a forum for agencies to learn from one another.
The topic for the kickoff session was Reducing Backlogs and Improving Timeliness. As the Attorney General 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.” Given the importance of this topic, which lies at the heart of any successful FOIA operation, it was chosen to be the topic for the inaugural session of this Best Practices Workshop series.
Today’s panel featured five speakers, from agencies both large and small. These speakers had all demonstrated notable success in improving timeliness and reducing backlogs at their respective offices. The speakers were Michael Marquis, from HHS, Thomas Cioppa, from USCIS at DHS, Richard Frank, from the Army Corps of Engineers, DOD, Lisa Babcock, from the SBA, and Cindy Cafaro, from the Department of the Interior. During the session each speaker briefed the audience on the challenges they faced and described the many, varied approaches they had taken to achieve real success in reducing processing times, closing their ten oldest requests, and reducing backlogs. During the session there was also an active exchange with the audience as questions were raised and comments were addressed.
While the speakers had each devised their own individualized approaches to meeting the challenges of improving timeliness at their own offices, what was striking about listening to the panel was their extraordinarily high level of engagement on these issues. One after another, each speaker detailed a series of actions they had taken, all designed to work in concert, to bring about reforms that would improve performance. It was clear from listening to these speakers that they were very actively engaged in finding ways to help their offices improve timeliness and reduce backlogs.
There were also common elements to the approaches taken at the five agencies. The speakers addressed the importance of:
- Obtaining leadership support – to obtain personnel and resources, to get buy-in from program offices, to increase awareness, to spread responsibility and ensure greater accountability
- Routinely reviewing processing metrics – to ensure oldest cases are handled each year, to make changes as needed during the course of the year, to identify common requests and trends as part of “Intelligent Case Management,” to troubleshoot
- Ensuring accountability – to motivate and reward personnel, to engage all members of the agency with a role in the process
- Engaging with FOIA staff – to train and encourage, to answer questions, to simplify processes and improve quality as well as quantity
The speakers also stressed the benefits of using multi-track processing and explained how they had created new tracks and ensured that requests were properly assigned to the proper track so that simple requests did not get caught behind far more complicated ones. Several speakers mentioned that they used the first quarter of the fiscal year to focus on their ten oldest requests. The speakers highlighted the benefits and improvements that technology afforded and stressed how they were constantly looking for ways to use technology to simplify the process.
At the conclusion of the panel many audience members conveyed that they had gotten a lot of good ideas that they would take back to their own agencies. That is the goal of these workshops – to provide agency personnel with a forum to hear from others who have faced the same challenges and learn how they overcame those challenges to achieve success and see real improvement in their FOIA operations.
Our next Best Practices Workshop will be held July 17, 2014, and will address the topic of Proactive Disclosures and Making Online Information More Useful. Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for more information about these series of events.