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Discussing Using Technology to Improve FOIA Processes at Best Practices Panel

December 18, 2014

OIP’s ongoing series of Best Practices Workshops continued last week with a panel of experts discussing how to utilize technology to improve agency FOIA processes. This 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.

In his FOIA Memorandum, President Obama called on agencies to “use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government.” This message is echoed by Attorney General Holder in his FOIA Guidelines, noting that “[o]pen government requires agencies to work proactively and respond to requests promptly.” In their Chief FOIA Officer Reports each year, agencies continue to detail the steps they have taken to utilize advanced or new technologies to improve or find efficiencies in their administration of the FOIA.

The panel for this event included Doug Hibbard, Senior Advisor to the Initial Request Staff at OIP, Michael Norman, Director of FOIA Technology with the Privacy Office at the Department of Homeland Security, and Joan Fina, Assistant General Counsel at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Each panelist discussed steps and best practices they have implemented when incorporating technology into their FOIA processing, including:

  • 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 particularly 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.

The speakers at this event all noted that the incorporation of any new technology into the FOIA process is not just the job of FOIA professionals, but it requires the work of multiple staffs within an agency. Collaboration between FOIA and technology professionals can help overcome obstacles to the implementation of new technologies as well as uncover additional tools that may be useful in administering the FOIA. Additionally, the speakers all highlighted how the use of advanced document review tools, such as functions provided by eDiscovery tools, can help create efficiencies and time savings in FOIA administration by reducing the time needed to search for and de-duplicate records, thereby allowing FOIA professionals to spend more time reviewing located documents.

The Best Practices series seeks to provide FOIA professionals from around the government the opportunity to hear from individuals who have experience within a particular topic in order to leverage the experiences of others in their own FOIA process. As highlighted by the panel at this event, opportunities exist to identify or leverage technology tools in order to find efficiencies across the government.

The Best Practices Workshop series will continue on February 11, 2015, when a panel of agency personnel will discuss the topic of customer service and dispute resolution. 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 DOJ.OIP.FOIA@usdoj.gov with the subject line “February 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.


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Updated December 18, 2014